Short Captions for Stick Figures, the newest offering from Tim Foley (back-catalogue including Meat, The Imaginary Cutlery of Dr. Mika and Scene of the Titans) is a typically bizarre cocktail of workplace politics, gender identity and toilet humour. Set in the office of the occasionally verbally abusive but not unsympathetic Mrs Warner (Ayanna Coleman), featuring Jackie (Emma Taylor) the dizzy receptionist and ‘Odd Bob’ (Jasper Lauderdale), the caption writer of dubious sexual identity, Stick Figures is at its core a play about men and women.
When Bob is caught in the girls’ bathroom, a subsequent meeting escalates into fraught confrontation in which Warner demands that, in order to prove his right to use a female toilet, Bob should ‘whip out a vagina and put it on the desk’. Figuratively, of course. Bob’s plaintive ‘You can’t do that with a vagina’ brought the house down. In their next meeting, Bob has a legal representative (played taciturnly by Alex Levine) to protect his ‘gender rights’, who undercuts everything that Warner says with pedantic, yet utterly valid comments about gendered political correctness. Traditional workplace roles are turned upside down, as a female corporate boss is portrayed to be undermining the rights of junior male employee – inverting a situation we are used to seeing.
The insanity unfolds in taut sequences of witty wordplay exploring the dynamics of male-female roles in the workplace. Questions arise such as; is it fair for men to feel excluded from the weekly office ‘Girls’ Night Out’? Who is to be denigrated for their choice of apparel; the tiny-skirted stiletto-tottering Jackie; or Warner, who wishes to be taken seriously in masculine frumpy clothes, yet due to this is assumed to be pregnant? When Warner brands Bob’s comments offensive to women, he replies; ‘How can that be offensive, I’m a feminist’, which opens up a new can of worms. Foley doesn’t pull any punches, yet the result manages simultaneously to be incredibly funny.
Each character brings more than their share of laughs to the boardroom; Taylor shines as the fluffy PA whose idea of ‘just pencilling something in’ is re-applying her eyeliner, and Levine makes a hilarious meal of what is comparatively a cameo. Yet it is the bizarre double act of Coleman and Lauderdale who carry the piece. Despite her flaws, including a remarkably short fuse and vocabulary that would make a sailor blush, Coleman’s deft performance means that Warner’s fall from professional grace is impossible not to sympathise with. Bob is a far more bizarre character, but even so he is the recognisable introvert of every office and he makes entirely valid points about gender which many choose to overlook.
The denouement of the play is a deliciously dark bit of black humour; but it seemed a little too much of a sucker punch or gimmick to finish a piece which, despite being consciously bizarre, raised some genuinely troubling questions about us ‘stick figures’ and the unnecessary and unfair captions we give ourselves. I wanted more of a resolution for Warner – as opposed to the urge to leave the Barron singing this.
Images courtesy of Ben Anderson.