Sticks and Stones

Vinay Patel
Paines Plough, Theatr Clwyd
The Roundabout at The Lowry, Ordsall Park, Salford
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The Roundabout is certainly offering a varied programme during its visit to The Lowry. Last night’s Island Town was a heavily verbal socially-conscious drama and tonight Vinay Patel’s Sticks and Stones is a satire in which the story is told in a highly physical manner.

Sticks and Stones is set in the type of dog-eat-dog workplace where people are treated as cogs in the corporate machine. None of the characters in the play has a name and even the central protagonist is referred to only by the initial ‘B’ (Katherine Pearce) as if made anonymous in some confidential report. B is a rising star in her company but one day tells a joke to which a colleague takes offence—on behalf of those people who were not present to hear the joke he explains. B struggles to make amends for her unintentional gaff attending sensitively training but things go from bad to worse as she finds that she is attracting support from people whose extreme views she finds offensive.

Author Vinay Patel constructs a maze-like environment through which characters carefully pick their way. There is a sense that society has abandoned any responsibility to agree common standards and left the issue of what is considered offensive open to subjective interpretation. A manager cheerfully acknowledges that she does not remember what the initials in a particular acronym actually mean. It is a confused environment in which minor issues spin wildly out of control having disproportionate consequences.

Yet Sticks and Stones is not a dark Kafkaesque play like Mamet’s Oleanna. Director Stef O’Driscoll keeps the mood light; B’s misadventures are treated as absurd rather than frightening. Katherine Pearce is constantly baffled and frustrated by the situations in which B finds herself but the paranoia arising from being at odds with what is considered the norm is absent.

O’Driscoll sets a mood of heightened reality in which the movements of the cast are highly stylised to the point of becoming dance or mime. It may seem a luxury to have movement directors in a fringe production but the contribution of Jennifer Jackson and Simon Carroll-Jones is vital. Corporate style mannerisms—dramatically pointing and clicking fingers—or the spread-leg ‘power stance’ employed by politicians like Sajid Javid are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree.

The offensiveness of certain words is indicated by dramatic arm gestures and cartoon pops and whistles so that conversations between the cast become a mixture of semaphore, dance and silly noises. Admirably, the cast play the scenes as if this is the most normal thing in the world. But then the world the characters inhabit is becoming increasingly bizarre anyway.

The staging of the play places enormous demands on the cast who are playing cartoon exaggerations rather than real people. Charlotte O’Leary offers a manager who couldn’t care less constantly exercising with her face set in a rictus grin while Jack Wilkinson jumps from an ice-cold corporate assassin to a slightly creepy diamond in the rough. Ironically B, after opening as a corporate drone, becomes representative of the audience—increasingly confused by the shifting sensitivities of society and humanised by her experiences. Katherine Pearce, who made a strong dramatic impact in Island Town, proves to be just as adept in comedy.

Satire is closely associated with verbal dexterity and the shift towards physical storytelling makes Sticks and Stones particularly compelling.

David Cunningham