The first thing you need to know about Sticks and Stones, the three-part psychological drama from Doctor Foster and Press writer Mike Bartlett, is that you will cringe. Within a few minutes you will be watching from behind your hands. If you’re watching on demand, you’ll be tempted to fast forward. It will be toe-curling, it will be anxiety-inducing — above all, it will be familiar.
That’s because watching the first few scenes of Sticks and Stones is like reliving one of those nightmares where you turn up to work and something’s wrong: you’re naked, or you’ve forgotten how to do your job, or you’ve turned up on the wrong day. The story begins with Thomas (Ken Nwosu), a hard-working businessman who ruins a crucial team pitch before fainting in the company boardroom.
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Not only is Thomas’ predicament familiar (we’ve all imagined some version of the dreaded scenario), but what happens next proves just as familiar. Thomas becomes a victim of workplace bullying.
Or does he? At first, it’s all so small-scale. A faux-concerned question from a team member about whether Thomas wet himself when he fainted. An amusing post-it note left on his desk stapler, labelled “This is a stapler”. Colleagues laughing and exchanging glances while still in his line of sight.
Based on Bartlett’s play Bull, the drama is set in a dreary Reading business park and focuses on the competitive world of middle management. Thomas and his team are all reliant on bonuses and commissions, and when he freezes during the pitch he costs them (and himself) thousands of pounds. Gone are his plans for a trip to Disneyland with wife Jess (Alexandra Roach) and their young deaf daughter, who, like her father, is being bullied by her peers.
The stakes are raised even higher when Thomas discovers that his affable boss, Carter (Ben Miller), is planning a number of lay-offs, and that if he doesn’t rectify his mistake soon, it may well cost him his job.
Susannah Fielding (This Time with Alan Partridge), who starred onstage in Bartlett’s Bull, reprises her role as Isobel, Thomas’ glamorous colleague. Unlike Andy and Becky, the two more junior team members (played by Sean Sagar and Ritu Arya), Isobel remains friendly towards Thomas after his blunder — eerily so. While Andy and Becky are both outright nasty, Isobel’s kindness seems to mask an ambition that’s more keen than anyone else’s. And right now, Thomas is standing in the way of her and the team’s success.
Things become a little farcical later on in the first episode, when Thomas manages to score a second meeting with the prospective client from the failed pitch — only to be thwarted by his own team (in a devious scheme riddled with plot holes). It feels as though Thomas has been cast in a dark and twisted comedy of errors, forced to play the tormented Malvolio figure. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is wrongly assumed to be insane, and Sticks and Stones certainly seems to be headed in a similar direction, as Thomas’ sanity is increasingly questioned by those around him.
In writing Sticks and Stones, Bartlett told RadioTimes.com that he hoped both former victims and perpetrators might recognise certain behaviours (“We certainly could all be good bullies, and actually probably the majority of people have been”). It’s what makes the series such uneasy viewing, as many of those watching will have been bullied themselves, or else have taken part in bullying in some shape or form, even just by being complicit and watching something unfold without stopping it.
Bartlett’s acclaimed series Doctor Foster, starring Suranne Jones as a woman who suspects her husband is having an affair, was a hit with critics and audiences alike, but his more recent series Press, about two rival newspapers, met a more mixed reception. Doctor Foster tapped into common suspicions and feelings, while Press was firmly rooted in an industry that much of the public won’t have had personal experience of. Perhaps with Sticks and Stones, a series that shows the subtle machinations of corporate bullies, Bartlett has once again produced a drama that sheds light on a universal fear.
The three-part series Sticks and Stones will begin on Monday 16th December at 9pm on ITV and will air daily over three nights.