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A CurtainUp London Review
"Every once in a while Howard likes to bring someone like you into the fold. Not because he believes in the value of meritocracy or anything. No, he believes in the value of being poor. He thinks it creates a special determination. . . . " — Charlie
Martin McDougall as Howard and Sean Delaney as John (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
There is no doubt which decade we are in with those wide legged trousers. It is the 1970s and Howard (Martin McDougall) is on the look out for new talented employees in his loan banking division of a New York based corporate bank.

Howard is surrounded by talent from the Ivy League universities but he wants someone who reflects more his own family background, before recent generations went to Harvard or Yale. It is this original, entrepreneurial spirit he recognises in John Anderson (Sean Delaney). Howard's speech about his ancestors since the American Civil War with their adventures and non-Harvard education grips us from the off. As Howard talks he plays with a red yo-yo throwing it perilously near John's face. It's hard not to flinch.

Beth Steel's writing is much more than an historical narrative account of the American banks that overreached themselves in lending money to South American governments. There are speeches of great merit and interest by themselves. As Howard relates the occupations of his ancestors, we get a picture of the development of the American economy from the Civil War to the present day.

In addition to these wonderful speeches, there are also moments of choreographed action, frenetic and wild and exciting which enliven the drama, especially in the second act. Don't leave at the interval unless you want people telling you what a foolish decision that was. Many plays use the first act to set up what is to come in the second and the first act could seem rather wordy.

John's induction into loans and Latin America is at the hands of Charlie Richman who can list the make of the limousine waiting for you at every foreign airport, "Jaguar in the Philippines, Silver Lincoln in Bankok, Rolls Royce in Hong Kong, Stretch Mercedes in Saudi Arabia and a Porsche in Indonesia". Charlie's fast patter is filling John in on the cultural traps and mores of other countries and some of those tips are very amusing. First stop for John is Brazil and the realisation that governments are guaranteeing loans to possibly corrupt contractors and that if his bank doesn't loan the money, another bank will. "Because business is never a one way street," says Charlie.

Having heard about Howard's family John tells people at work that his father is dead but suddenly Frank Anderson (Philip Bird) appears at John's New York apartment and wearing clothes from two decades before. It seems that wheeler dealing runs in the Anderson family, except that father Frank's fraudulent activities have landed him in prison and his wife with almost endless debt.

Designer Andrew D Edwards' set has four walls covered in a lighting labyrinth that changes its maze shape and colour with twin doors either end of the traverse playing area, the audience raked to either side of the glass floor. Office furniture moves seamlessly. John is kitted out in the required Brooks Brothers designer suit.

So to the politics of an International Monetary Fund and World Bank conference, dubbed by Charlie as the world's largest financial supermarket. He says "Every third-world country is here for one weekend only. And they are gagging for credit". John meets a female journalist, disguising her profession, Grace (Elena Saurel), who closely questions him about Chile and Pinochet. In Chile and elsewhere, the theory is that growth will outpace the loan servicing debt. Charlie becomes a Vice President at 28 and John gets his own portfolio, lending to Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

After the interval, the oil crisis looms, interest rates soar to 18%, Mexico goes into meltdown and austerity measures are imposed. Labyrinth reflects the financial crisis with increasingly frantic choreography and a red lit floor to oppressive effect. Psychedelic lighting increases the turmoil and the blame game is started. Mexico's Day of the Dead festival takes over as a symbol for financial ruin.

Many of the ensemble cast of twelve take several parts; for instance Joseph Balderrama plays ministers in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. I particularly liked Tom Weston-Jones' confident Charlie. John Ross' movement is outstanding with the cast getting tied up in telephone wires, dancing symbolising market fluctuations and lighting to match from Richard Howell. Director Anna Ledwich has given this complex piece clarity.

Beth Steel's writing is remarkable, her metaphors for the financial crisis are many and witty and her writing has speeches of depth and integrity contrasting with the urgent fast buck mentality of the loan merchants. This is a lively play, beautifully written with an interesting historical perspective as austerity is prescribed closer to home.

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Written by Beth Steel
Directed by Anna Ledwich
Starring: Sean Delaney, Martin McDougall, Tom Weston-Jones, Philip Bird
With: Joseph Balderrama, Ryan Ellsworth, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Abubakar Salim, Elena Saurel, Chris Sawalha, Alexia Traverse-Healy, Matt Whitchurch, James Gulliford, Luke MacLeod
Movement: John Ross
Design by Andrew D Edwards
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Lighting Design: Richard Howell
Running time: Two Hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 8th October 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th September 2016 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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