Serious Money at LAMDA review review ****

Serious Money

Sainsbury Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, 4th June 2019

Last minute jaunt to Hammersmith to see one of LAMDA’s summer season offerings. If there are times when you start fulminating about paying close to a ton for a cramped perch in a dingy West End mausoleum, then can I recommend again the end of year productions from London’s top notch drama schools. A ticket, a programme, a snack and a drink and still likely change from a pony, all supported by professional creatives and maybe with the chance to see the next big star of stage and screen.

Especially if you have a yen to see a particular play. In this case, for the Tourist, a reminder of just how good a play Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money is. We have had the slightly underwhelming, but still wonderful, revival of Top Girls at the NT earlier in the year, and we have a new, now quartet, of shorts to look forward to at the Royal Court come September, but London’s major houses have not, to my knowledge staged this play in the last few years. Which is daft given its continuing relevance and the fact that it is, trust me, highly entertaining.

It is, to be fair, of its time. Its time being 1987. It is now over three decades since Big Bang revolutionised London equity markets, during which financial capitalism has run riot through the global economy. Global capital (debt and equity) stock now totals well over USD 200 trillion up from around USD 30 trillion in 1987. The notional value of global derivatives contracts is well over USD 500 billionn and some might have you believe that it is actually over a quadrillion (thats 16 zeros). Take comfort the gross value of the contracts is “only” north of USD 10 trillion. But the fact is no-one knows and when this goes tits up it is going to hurt you even if you have absolutely no idea what this involves.

Open outcry on LIFFE, (London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange), which is the setting for part of the play, may be long gone, with the electronic exchange now part of a global network, the financial regulatory functions of the DTI, (Department of Trade and Industry), handed over to successor organisations, Brexit probably means the British Government doesn’t have time to bump off dodgy stockbrokers and I doubt anyone plays Pass the Pigs anymore.

Otherwise CC’s satire, in terms of behaviour and consequences, is still pretty much spot on. Fear and greed still drive market “volatility”and worse. That is baked into the DNA. That has been true from the beginnings in the C17 as CC shows at the opening of SM with the extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1693 Restoration comedy The Volunteers or Stockjobbers. A few years years later in 1720 the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles brought European economies to their knees. Pretty much every decade since then markets have imploded. It’s just that the numbers have got bigger and bigger. No capital markets means no growth though and none of the lovely things we all prize but now the global body politic is hooked on the free money which the “independent” central bank pushers have no choice but to supply. Which only underwrites today’s equivalents of all the naughty boys and girls who toss away their moral compasses in Serious Money.

The play opened at the Royal Court in March 1987, was in the West End by July, (where the Tourist first saw it), and New York by November. In between, on 19th October, we had the Black Monday global crash. CC looked prescient. Not really. She just identified the nature of the system and set about puncturing it. Mercilessly. Surprising really given how far CC is normally ahead of the curve.

At the turn of the C20 stock markets collapsed again following the bursting of the dot-com bubble, in 2007/08 the grandiloquently named Global Financial Crisis arrived which you may have heard of, there was the flash crash of 2010 and then another sell-off through 2015/16. At the end of last year markets tanked 20%. Did you notice? Thought not. I seem to recall ever Her Maj had a pop post the GFC asking why no-one had warned of the pending catastrophe. Ma’am. They did. Not enough people listened. Until they finally did. Markets, never forget, are driven by largely excitable people acting “fast” pretending they are clever and thinking “slow”.

Playwrights, as CC’s reference to Thomas Shadwell shows, have been on to this story from the off. Indeed you can go back further, to the Restoration city comedies, and Ben Jonson for example. There isn’t much about the behaviour of the characters in SM that BJ didn’t nail in Volpone and The Alchemist. However punters, and reviewers, do get a bit antsy about all the jargon it seems in these entertainments. True of SM and, moreorless, true of more recent forays into the “financial markets” genre such as Enron, Labyrinth, Dry Powder, Other People’s Money, The Invisible Hand, Other People’s Money, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho. And that’s just what I have seen in the last few years, (and can remember). To which I respectfully suggest, find out. See above. This stuff matters to you. That is partly what CC is trying to say. Interrogate don’t abrogate. It’s often, one way or another, your capital these punters are playing with.

“Financial” plays also usually come with ambiguous morality baked in. Writers, in seeking to avoid killing plot and drama with one-sided polemic, (I am making the assumption that no-one is in the market for writing a play which celebrates financial capitalism), try to offer up “rounded” characters. Which makes sense. Behaviours in markets may turn venal, and markets themselves need close and careful regulation, but, generally, the people in them are not “evil”. They are just like you and me. Well I confess me. They are there because they are clever and lucky. The paradox between, generally, the determination of the individual to be “good”and for structures, forces and processes at the societal level to turn “bad”, is as acute in a bank as it is in government or down the pub on a Friday night.

Which also can mean the actions of the “heroes” in the financial play, or more obviously film, think Wolf of Wall Street, can become a cause for celebration for some. CC tried to get round this by making everyone in SM a c*nt in some for or another, by having 20 named characters, (even managing 6 women in this macho world, who are all flawed), overstuffing the action, there are 24 scenes across the 2 acts, and incorporating song and dance. Apparently this didn’t stop entire floors of investment banks pitching up to the original production. Whilst individuals may just be “doing their jobs” the cultures they create and the rewards they enjoy have, over the last few decades, ended up near the top of the aspirational pile. Markets are addictive for participants such that they cannot see the world outside. Markets are opaque for non-participants, making it easier just to reject them. This is not healthy.

Anyway back to SM. CC is rightly lauded for her imagination and innovation of dramatic form. And for the breadth of her practice. For me though she is also a genius because she is so clever and learns so quickly. SM is filled with detail, not just about how things work, that’s not too difficult, but more in the understanding of what motivates this array of characters. As usual CC gets straight to the heart of things with the minimum of dialogue. Whilst presenting that dialogue as rhyming couplets in a nod to the past and to reflect the rhythm of markets. If there is a better summation of a market when the shit hits the fan, (and that still happens even in a quant and liquidity driven electronic trading world) than “Sell! Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” then I haven’t heard it.

And this all comes with a proper plot. A detective story of sorts as Scilla Todd tries to uncover the facts behind the mysterious death of her brother Jake. And CC doesn’t hold back on the innovation. The first contemporary scene after the Shadwell opening takes place in three locations simultaneously. Greville Todd, old school broker, buttering up a client. Scilla, a rare women salesperson on the floor of a post Big Bang bank in London and her slimey sexist colleague Grimes, and brother Jake on yet another floor, broking with his sales and trader colleagues.

Next the champagne bar. The dialogue of the pissed nails the aspirations of the young and greedy, Then US banker Zac explains, clearly and succinctly, how the stock market changed post big-Bang and the scions of UK merchant banking sold out to the US behemoths. And how, within the US banks the traders, who make the money pushed the bankers, who carry the prestige, aside. Less than 15 minutes in and this crucial change in the direction of Western capitalism has been nailed. In verse.

Next the hunt where we see Frosby, the disgruntled old guard jobber who shops Jake when he passes insider information to Marylou Baines, the arbitrageur with comic assistant TK, based in NYC. We learn that Jake was being investigated by the DTI and was worried he was in too deep. We then meet Corman, the private equity raider, taking a tilt at Duckworth’s company Albion, his various advisors, white knight Biddulph, Peruvian Jacinta happy to sell out her country for a few quid, improbable cocoa trader Nigel, a US business patsy who is wheeled in to take out Corman’s company and finally a UK politician, stepping in to stop Corman’s “vote-losing” take-over.

The plot is, in the manner of the Jacobeans, deliberately a little tortuous. Yet the stagecraft that CC employs makes it easy-ish to follow. And the characters are stereotypes. That is the point. It is satire. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more. CC shows that there is never “enough” for players in a market. Someone always gets more. The “game” is all about the winning and revenge is served piping hot. “Truth” is elastic and just part of the armoury. Even Scilla, who is closest to a conventional character who “changes” through the play, gives up investigating her brother’s death to take up the offer from Marylou. CC doesn’t stop with financial markets, stuffing in the abuse of power by the DTI and a shadowy MP into the mix. Media and advertising gets a slap as well.

It is fair to say that, with all these riches, the setting, the message, the Brechtian alienation, the jargon, the flashbacks, (dead Jake keeps popping up), the lack of resolutions, the absence of redeeming qualities in the protagonists, (there are no romantic consciences taking on this corrupt world on behalf of the audience), the multiple dialogue, the often daft couplets which ape the commodification and financialisation of the “real” world, the sheer, accelerating pace of the action, that some audiences might lose their bearings. I think this is partly deliberate. After all those on stage have lost theirs.

In this production LAMDA spared us from significant doubling which can really vex some. Of course the perennial problem of such productions is the age of the actors but, in Serious Money, given its unreality, this is less of a problem. As usual it is unfair to pick out individuals but, arm twisted, I would post to Ryan Burch as Zackerman, Ivan Du Pontavice as Corman, Colm Glesson as Greville Todd, Elizabeth Hammerton as Scilla, Emma Lauristan as Marylou Baines, Charlie McVicar as Jake and Joe McNamara as TK.

I was mightily impressed with the direction of Emily Jenkins who is also, I see, a playwright, who definitely deserves my attention. Serious Money, as you have probably surmised from the above is not an easy play to put on. This wasn’t perfect but it was a very convincing account and Ms Jenkins surely takes much of the credit for this. As do Assistant Directors, I assume from LAMDA, Thea Taverner and Mariagrazia La Fauci. And designer Adrian Gee wisely struck with all the trappings of 1987. SM requires no updating. Its universality stems from its very particularity.

I couldn’t tell you which is Caryl Churchill’s greatest play. Mostly because I haven’t seen them all. But this will always been near the top. It is very funny, breathtakingly theatrical, bitingly intelligent, brilliantly inventive and always urgent. And the kids here did her proud.

English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review *****

English Chamber Orchestra, Jessica Cottis (conductor), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ben Goldscheider (horn)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2019

  • Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
  • Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
  • Purcell/Britten – Suite of Six Songs from Orpheus Britannicus
  • Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

I love Britten’s Serenade, first performed in 1943. It might be one of my favourite ever pieces of classical music, up there with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bach’s Violin Sonatas and, I am not ashamed to admit, The Four Seasons. I am not alone. There was a delightful senior in the lift at Cadogan Hall who concurred. But it needs a tenor and, especially, horn player, of the highest rank, to pull it off. The ECO of course has it in its genes, Benjamin Britten having been its first patron and founding musical influence.

Now there are many fine recordings, (I assume based on the artists involved), but as ever in Britten’s music the best bet is to have the great man conducting and, in this, if not in all, cases, Peter Pears, singing. I can see why the experts reckon the recordings with the mercurial Dennis Brain, for whom the part was written, on horn are definitive, but the first, from 1942 a year after the piece premiered, is a bit period scratchy for my liking, emotional as it is, and the second, a decade later, falls a bit short musically. Dennis Brain might just have been the greatest horn player of the C20 coming from, and there can’t be too many of these, a veritable dynasty of horn players. He died far too young, in rock’n’roll style, by wrapping his sports car round a tree. If he had lived longer who knows what the next generation of modernist composers, the likes of Ligeti and Berio, might have conjured up for him.

As for the Serenade though I actually prefer the later Britten/Pears recording on Decca with the LSO and Barry Tuckwell on horn. More musical, and Pears less comedy toff sounding, even if the horn is a tad less mysterious. I also love the second Bostridge with the BPO and Rattle and their principal horn Czech Radek Baborak. After all Ian Bostridge is surely better than Pears in most of Britten’s supreme vocal music. On that note make sure not to miss his Madwoman in Curlew River with the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court next March. The staging in 2013 for Britten’s centenary, directed by Netia Jones at St Giles Crippplegate, with players from the BS, and IB in the same role, was extraordinary. One of the best “opera” experiences of the Tourist’s life.

So tenor Ben Johnson and Ben Goldscheider on horn had a lot to live up to. And by and large they did. The Serenade is not performed as often as it should be IMHO which perhaps reflects the combination of small string ensemble, a skilled horn player and a dramatic tenor. Ben Johnson certainly has the flair for the dramatic, he was an ENO Harewood artist, and his clear, if not overwhelming voice, fitted the piece and hall well. Ben Goldscheider, a BBC Young Musician finalist, who is now studying with the aforementioned Radek Baborak, left a deeper impression, adept in the more virtuoso passages and capturing the mystery and thrill of the more striking passages, even if the more lyrical settings lacked a little emotion.

The six movements, (book-ended by solo Prologue and Epilogue for the horn eschewing valves to create natural harmonics), comprise settings of poems by Charles Cotton (Pastoral), Tennyson (Nocturne), Blake (Elegy), a C15 Anonymous Dirge, Ben Jonson (Hymn) and Keats (Sonnet). Serenade literally means “an evening piece” and the poems combine to take us through nightfall from dusk to midnight. The dark heart of the work is the Black “O rose thou art sick” and the scary, pounding march of the Dirge that follows, “This ae night”, but the tunes and, typically with Britten, the atmospheres, by turns haunting, comforting, placid, dancing, of the outer settings, are exquisitely rendered. As usual Britten uses all sorts of clever and arresting techniques, the lilting string chords in the Pastoral, the echoing horn in the Nocturne, the semitone infection in the Elegy shifting the key from major to minor, the vocal repetition in the Dirge against the sinister string Fugue, the hunting horn in the Rondo hymn straight out of Mozart’s playbook and the string sustains in the Sonnet as we drift off to sleep, (not literally of course, and in any event, BG’s off stage Epilogue reprise would soon wake you up).

I see that Australian-British conductor Jessica Cottis played the French horn and trumpet in her youth which perhaps explains her confident way with the Serenade. I intend no offence but, physically, there isn’t much to Ms Cottis, I estimate 3 of her to 1 Tourist. She has a heck of a presence on the podium though. The ECO numbers on the night may only have maxed out in the Stravinsky, but Jessica Cottis teased out plenty of energy and power when required in this and in the rather more phlegmatic Ravel. I see she has had a couple of recent chamber operatic gigs with the Royal Opera House for Mamzer and The Monstrous Child and has appeared as a regular guest conductor after roles as Assistant at the BBC Scottish SO and Sydney SO under Ashkenazy. On the strength of these interpretations if I where looking for fresh musical leadership I would give her a job.

My last exposure to Le tombeau de Couperin was from Angela Hewitt in the solo piano version at the RFH with MSBD and MSBDD. No review on these pages as, thanks to collective misunderstanding, we managed to miss the star turn, Bach’s Partita No 4, which was, to saw the least, bloody annoying. Still the Ravel was superb and MSBDD was particularly chuffed, this being one of his favourite pieces. Now Ravel was a dab hand at lushly orchestrating other composers’ piano works but for his own he was a little more restrained. That isn’t to say that LTDC isn’t brimful of “colour”, that being the standard word to describe Ravel’s gorgeous ideas, just that you can feel the sombre tones which come from the work’s inspiration as a memorial to the close friends Ravel had lost in the Great War. This version of LTDC takes four of the piano’s six movements: the Prelude, where the traces of harpsichord ornamentation, this was after all inspired by the Baroque harpsichord genius Francois Couperin, is most apparent in strings and oboe; the Forlane, a Venetian dance which the Pope at the time had tried to re-introduce to replace the smutty tango, (is there no end to Catholic sex guilt), but which Ravel spices up with some dissonant notes; a courtly Menuet that goes a bit Scottish jig and ends up with a bit of that Ravelian jazz vibe; and finally a Rigaudon which is a medieval Provencal dance with central processional. The whole piece gives woodwind and, especially, brass a good workout which the respective members of the ECO seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I don’t have a recording of this. Clearly I should.

Apparently Henry Purcell composed over 250 songs and vocal works in his short 36 year life with three volumes being published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus. BB, like so many subsequent British composers, loved HP, as would anyone in their right mind. Indeed they have a lot in common: inventive harmony, matchless word painting and transparent and direct melody in their music for voice. BB, along with Michael Tippett, was instrumental in bringing the near forgotten HP back into the mainstream, in part through settings of songs from the OB volumes. HP had only provided figured bass lines as accompaniment to the vocal parts but that is all BB needed, along with his preferred chamber orchestral forces, to bring the songs to life. Peter Pears, in editing the vocal lines, foregoes any frilly ornamentation and together the lads created some cracking numbers, modest in sound even if the lyrics are a bit British bulldog patriotic. It doesn’t look like they crop up on the Last Night of the Proms. They should. I see that BB himself writing about his and PP’s arrangements hoped to capture “something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness and strangeness which shines out in all of Purcell’s music“. Could just as easily have been his own manifesto.

Having literally changed the course of music with those ballets Stravinsky, and Diaghilev as the promoter needed to come up with a new trick after the War. Diaghilev, in yet another inspired move, presented IS with a collection of music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, he of the Stabat Mater, (and some criminally ignored operas and unrecorded orchestral pieces), and a book of stories about the stock commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, or wife-beater and all round yob Mr Punch to us Brits. (BTW Pergolesi, like Purcell died way too young, though he only managed to get to the very rock’n’roll age of 26). From this IS conjured up the ballet Pulcinella which premiered in Paris in 1920 conducted by maestro Ernst Ansermet with choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by some bloke named Pablo Picasso. And so began IS’s neo-classical phase. Oh yessss.

The suite, written in 1922 and subsequently revised, (as IS was wont to do). is scored for chamber orchestra like the full ballet but the vocal parts are dumped and the material is condensed into 8 movements. I have recordings of the full ballet from Abbado and the LSO and Marriner and the ASMF, (unsurprisingly, given its genesis, Baroque specialists love having a go at this). In this performance Jessica Cottis and the ECO trod a nice line between the kind of crisp, HIP influenced, neo-classical Stravinsky now commonplace and the older, lusher, vibrato-ey style, though it didn’t quite make enough off the off-kilter chords and bouncy rhythms, after all most of the movements are based on dances. This is core repertoire for the ECO and it shows.

Next up from the ECO at Cadogan Hall on April 16th a brighter affair, the Mendelssohn VC with some Schubert, Suk and the cinematic Bartok Divertimento, led by the, er, ECO leader Stephanie Gonley and then. on May 22nd, some Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, from the other end of his neo-classical period. Looking forward to the former concert but will miss the latter. Clashes with the Stockhausen Donnerstag aus Licht. What have I let myself in for.