Review: Sticks and Stones by Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd

Incisive new play about the power of language

★★★
theatre review (edinburgh) | Read in About 2 minutes
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Sticks and Stones. Image: Ganesha Lockhart Design & Thread Design
Published 16 Aug 2018

One word does it for B; one little word in one little joke in one big corporate pitch. Intended to amuse, it instead caused offence – or it could have done, to somebody, even if it didn’t. In no time at all, she’s hauled into HR, dispatched to diversity training, ostracised and out of a job.

Vinay Patel’s sly social satire never lets that word slip, but it spins so many more that language starts to lose sense. B’s woke-aholic colleagues lecture her on “optics” and “intersectionality”, and in Stef O’Driscoll’s jaunty production, each term comes with an accompanying action – virtue-signalling made flesh. Everyone, eventually, has to dance along. It’s almost Kafkaesque.

Sticks and Stones shows the way words become weapons – not just the slurs, but the truncheon terminology of the language police. Without letting B off the hook, it sympathises as colleagues start circling like sharks, professing political correctness but out to undermine.

Patel dissects how the pendulum swings back. As free-speech crusaders take up B’s cause, she buckles under what feels like bullying. Accusations of offence start to sting like insults and since language is wrapped up in identity, B starts to feel her own background’s being attacked.

It’s incisive and empathetic, a play that sees both sides, but O’Driscoll’s staging lets us off the hook, spelling too much out and too eager to please. Instead of allowing language to pile up and hollow out, the dance moves overdo it and a play about being tongue-tied trips over its feet.