UK TV review: Sticks and Stones
James R | On 22, Dec 2019
“It’s a game, and the trick is to stay just within the lines.” That’s how someone describes the apparent situation unfolding around Thomas (Ken Nwosu) in ITV’s Sticks and Stones. Written by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, the three-part drama picks apart workplace bullying with the authenticity of first-hand experience and the ridiculous contrivances of, well, Doctor Foster.
We begin as Thomas, the leader of a competitive sales team, messes up a crucial presentation with a big new client. Why? Because he wasn’t told about a change in the way the computer connects to the network. Was he deliberately set up? Did he innocently miss an email about the system switch? When his team start to undermine him and mock him for fainting, it soon becomes clear that this is the first in a string of escalating harassment.
Or is it? Sticks and Stones’ central tension relies on our doubting of Thomas’ own perception of events. With his boss, Chris Carter (Ben Miller), carrying out lay-offs across the department, and with his hearing-impaired daughter facing bullying at school Thomas is feeling severely under pressure – perhaps he’s buckled and become irrationally paranoid?
Bartlett’s script, based on his own play Bull, slowly ramps up the uncertainty and the severity of the attacks, which start out as Post-It notes all over Thomas’ desk labelling things what they are (“stapler” pointing at the stapler) and graduate to direct insults about his daughter. Where most people would complain to HR immediately, though, Thomas seems to have no evidence with which to prove his suspicions – something that, on the one hand, seems dramatically convenient, but, on the other, keeps us in limbo as to whether he’s really seeing things for what they are.
Stretching this out for three hours, though, is a tough ask for anyone, and by the time Thomas’ wife is being surprised at a family meal, a familiar can driver turns up, or someone has taken their top off away from CCTV cameras, we enter into territory that’s too contrived to feel entirely plausible. And yet, Sticks and Stones remains queasily enjoyable to watch, thanks to a cast that are revelling in their parts.
Sean Sagar and Ritu Arya are practically twirling moustaches as Thomas’ cruel colleagues, Andy and Becky. Are they working together? Do they actually hate each other? Perhaps they’re really just concerned about the team’s overall performance and trying to save Thomas’ sabotaged deal? Whatever the truth is, they’re definitely not in a hurry to help Thomas out, as getting rid of him would boost their own career prospects. Ben Miller is enjoyably slimy as Thomas’ boss, who awkwardly doesn’t want to have to confront or deal with such issues as workplace harassment – an effective contrast to the always-excellent Alexandra Roach, who provides sympathetic but no more helpful support as Thomas’ wife, Jess.
The two stars of the show, though, are Susannah Fielding and Ken Nwosu. Fielding plays Thomas’ sole kind colleague, Isobel, with a brilliantly ambiguous air, never letting her smiling friendliness seem entirely sincere, as Thomas grows more and more neurotic. Nwosu, meanwhile, is brilliantly nervy as Thomas, hiding his crumbling sanity beneath a mask of forced politeness, conveying his fear of being fired and his frustration at being discriminated against with every twitch of his face.
Underlying it all is the shrewd observation that being mean isn’t actually against the law, asking where the line can be drawn in a climate of hostility, selfishness and competition. It’s not saying anything revelatory, but it’s telling that anyone watching will recognise themselves in each situation, whether that’s as a victim or an unwitting enabler of mistreatment. The result is an entertaining, compelling and often-cringe-inducing examination of modern workplace culture that might not always convince but undoubtedly rings true.
Sticks and Stones is available on BritBox as part of an £5.99 monthly subscription.