Hampstead Theatre, 29th January 2018
At last a play about the world of “high finance” which does not wade in with both feet in some ham-fisted (I know, mangled metaphors), didactic attempt to explain to the audience why it is “evil”. Actually that is a little unfair as most plays I have seen in recent years which tackle this subject have been more nuanced. But none has taken the impartial, but ultimately more insightful, stance here adopted by Sarah Burgess.
We are all complicit in the fiction of money, or, more exactly, credit. No money, no exchange. No credit, no growth. For every transaction there is a buyer and a seller. Fear, greed, supply, demand, the price mechanism. All tricky to avoid. You can argue long and hard about the distribution of the “benefits” that flow from capitalist economic organisation, and debate whether the externalities, or excesses, that it promotes are a price worth paying, (there I go again), but no-one seems to have found a viable alternative.
The people who work in high finance are pretty much the same as the people who don’t. Even at the very top of the tree the only difference, generally, is that they worked harder at school. There is no secret initiation ceremony that turns them into rapacious c*nts. Daddy’s job is not paramount. The are’t all card carrying Republicans or Tories. They have lives, of a sort. They aren’t capitalists with top hats. The capital they manipulate is often your pensions or investment, or has been created by governments on your behalf, so that you can have the things you want when you want them. Most of what they do isn’t shady or clandestine. It is just really, really dull.
Once they get to the top, or near the top, of the tree though it is difficult for them not to be sucked into the drug of self-importance. Being paid big bucks drives, and distorts, behaviours of course. But it is not the reason why these people do what they do. It is simply the scorecard. One house, two houses, three houses. One car, two cars, three cars. One painting, two paintings, three paintings. This is not what brings pleasure. What drives them is a combination of perceived power and self importance, and, most importantly, intellectual satisfaction. Thinking fast about a lot of things and betting on outcomes is what makes the game addictive.
This, I think, is what Ms Burgess seeks to explore in the play. And she does it, most effectively, through witty comedy. The play is by no means perfect but it does, through its four characters, show what can happen to those who get sucked into this bubble. Rick, played by Aiden McArdle, is the founding partner of a smallish private equity firm. He, and the firm, are attracting press opprobrium, thanks to his forthcoming, lavish, wedding (“only one elephant” at the engagement party), which leaked out on the same day as mass redundancy at one of the firm’s investments. He has set his two junior partners, Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell), to compete. Seth has brought a deal, Californian icon Landmark Luggage, to the table. The price is very attractive because Seth has persuaded the seller, via the CEO Jeff (Joseph Balerrama), that the firm will invest, grow the business online and preserve jobs. A press friendly “America First” proposal. Rick though asks Jenny to look at the case for relocating production across the border. Jenny comes back with a full on asset-stripping, outsource to Bangladesh, squeeze out cash, lever up to pinch a dividend, private equity caricature scenario.
From this set up flows some accurate, if not entirely, surprising paybacks. What makes it work is Sarah Burgess’s attention to the dialogue. Yes, she peppers the scenes with the technical language of private equity, (but is careful to provide context and explanations so if you don’t get it you’re not trying), and there is plenty of swearing. She does though capture the direct, combative, intense but often petty, point-scoring, smart-arse rhythm of this world. Everything here is about winning the argument. Consequences are often abstract. Everyone is very clever but argument tends to the reductive.
You might hear a bit of Mamet in the dialogue. I was reminded of the intent of the City comedies of Jonson and the Restoration, (and not just from the, I think, copious use of Purcell in Max Pappenheim’s sound design). A subtler tone perhaps. No need to accentuate the venality, hypocrisy and pomposity of the targets as in that era, but the same essential dramatic device. Use wit to illuminate self-interest.
You will be drawn to the performance of Hayley Atwell as Jenny. This is a fascinating study. She is not defined by her gender. Not wife, mother, love interest, victim. That is quite rare even in contemporary theatre. Charmless and devoid of “emotional intelligence”. Driven by the logic of return on capital but failing to see what cannot be measured. Saying sorry with no concept of why she should be. Exaggerated it may be but from this extreme emerges a lot of laughs and no little truth. But brilliant as Ms Atwell is it is not just about Jenny. Seth represents another bundle of personality traits. A charming self-assured salesmen who smoothly secures the trust of his clients. He comes to question the morality of Jenny’s management plan for Landmark, but only because he has “lost the game”. He is certainly not prepared to trade his status and back his own plan. Rick is immune to self-doubt his past success makes him think he is infallible. Aiden McArdle is all controlled, demanding aggression. It comes as no surprise that he will take capital from anyone to prop up his firm. Joseph Balerrama’s Jeff exudes a kind of fragile bonhomie but this, unsurprisingly, masks a ruthlessness that is revealed when his agency and price are tested.
Sarah Burgess has clearly delved deep and understood her research and rightly focussed on where it led her. Her writing is assured, droll and perfectly pitched. Anna Ledwich, (who also directed Beth Steel’s Labyrinth on this stage which came at this world from a different era and different asset class), offered sympathetic guidance. The design of Andrew D Edwards, with its revolving mirrors, and I think video of smoke at one point was maybe a bit overstated but no matter.