Choose your words wisely. In this dystopian satire, to deviate from the politically correct rules is to initiate social and professional suicide. Fuelled by the debate about what’s offensive and who gets to determine offence, Vinay Patel’s Sticks and Stones is so much about finding the right words that language loses its meaning.
B (Katherine Pearce) makes a misjudged joke and trips into a world of cultural landmines and magnified consequences, where intersectionality lessons are prescribed like a driving test refresher course for the foul-mouthed. Leaning heavily on dystopian tropes, B’s caricaturish colleagues (Charlotte O’Leary and Jack Wilkinson) live in a perpetual state of forced, grim wokeness, wearing anonymous suits and tight corporate grins.
Under Stef O’Driscoll’s direction, virtue signalling becomes a tangible action. Every time an actor says a particular word, their arms wave or knees dip like exaggerated air quotations, a flash of colour and loud buzz framing the action. Together their spins, clicks and points make an elaborate dad-dance routine, but individually they are used to accuse and degrade. When B refuses to play along with the rules, the tech desk overrides, making the Roundabout venue beep and flash until she reluctantly skews her limbs.
The absence of the banned words makes the audience fill in the gaps, and allows for the debate to work for any social issue, on either side of the political spectrum. But this lack of context means the play can never go deeper than broad generalities. The direction becomes a little wearisome too. The novel appeal of the verbal disco wears off quickly, and while O’Leary’s full-bodied cringe gets a big laugh, the joke becomes overwrought.
Patel doesn’t come down too harshly on either side. Rather, he picks on the reluctance to learn. Pointing to our resistance to explanation and acceptance, Sticks and Stones acknowledges the difficulty in keeping up when cultural sensitivities seem so quick to alter, as well as the frustration in the face of those unwilling to try. Let’s start talking to each other, the play begs, before our words start slapping us across the face.
- At Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh, until 25 August.