The sense of déjà vu that pervades this production of Beth Steel’s Labyrinth is profound. Enron raked these coals more effectively and more theatrically some years ago and nothing in Anna Ledwich’s production justifies the effort that has gone into making this play look and sound good. A fast pace and flashy lighting does not compensate for the lack of new ground tilled by Steel; a superior, but flawed, production of an inferior play.
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…Welcome aboard.
The advertising and acclaim for Beth Steel’s new play, Labyrinth, now playing at the Hampstead Theatre, suggests it is both a “compelling new thriller” and “witty”. As to the latter, exchanges such as the following establish a certain amusement factor:
Charlie: You want to go for a drink?
Holmes: I don’t think so.
Charlie: Because what? I’m a banker?
Holmes: Partly. But mostly because you’re a cunt.
Of course, there is nothing there to cause any extra revolutions by the corpse of Oscar Wilde, a playwright who knew all about true wit.
As to the “compelling new thriller” label, the fact is that Steel’s play is neither compelling nor thrilling. It is, at best, moderately engaging. No new ground or particular insights into the labyrinthine world of international high finance, it’s immorality or Stygian depths, are provided here. Only the most obtuse of audience members will not see the “surprises” in Act Two coming as they sip on their interval drink.
Steel’s play tap-dances around the financial crisis that gripped international banks in the 80s when, after years of borrowing money from said banks, 16 Latin American countries defaulted on their gargantuan borrowings and the greedy, shark pool of traders and lenders faced the real prospect of utter, terminal calamity.
The usual suspects are all present, most with barely the hint of any real character about them. There is the smooth, handsome rainmaker who would mortgage his mother’s ovaries and collateralise his father’s urinary tract, whose blood is a combination of cocaine and steel, with a big mouth and an ego to match. There is the cantankerous but wily Bank President who just wants results and never counts or considers the cost – paying is for poor people.
There is the smart, female journalist who exasperates the male bankers because she counts and watches where the money is moved. There are the envious, wary competitors, rivals from other banks, who spend and pout and preen with an insatiable absurdity, playing follow the greedier, as money drips through their fingers. There are the quaint provincial ministers of the Latin American countries who assume a mantle of parochial absurdity but who, inevitably, are smarter than the banking wolves who stalk them.
There is the IMF representative and the splenetic, outraged US Treasury official who doesn’t want to spend US taxpayer dollars to stop a financial haemorrhaging caused by the undisguised, naked usury of US citizens and entities (at least in some significant measure).
And, of course, there is the mild mannered, well brought up, desperate to succeed hero/fall guy/trainee villain/anti-hero whose father was jailed for fraud and whose mother raised him single-handedly and selflessly, working two jobs for years to ensure he hit the best start in life. This Forrest Gump clone finds himself seduced and waylaid by the excitement of his colleagues in banking, rising high and falling hard.
Add some reflections on what drives people to behave as they do, some salient observations about how great sacrifices are made by the dispossessed, weak and poor while entitled, strong and rich are cushioned and pampered and perfectly obvious parallels with the current finance crisis in certain European countries and you have Labyrinth. Caricatures and well-trodden narrative devices.
But, wait…there are ghosts too. Well, maybe they are ghosts. Maybe they are something else, but, whatever they are they unsettle Labyrinth Gump. And there is a randy seal and a randy penguin – possibly an allegory for unnatural financial couplings, possibly something else – and a bizarre duo who comment, like a Greek Chorus after enforced redundancies, on the culture that allows the fiscal bacteria to thrive.
Everything plays out on a very tricksy, very impressive set (Andrew D Edwards) which has the concept of an amazeing space blaring from every nook and cranny. There are maze patterns on the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor; there are subterranean chambers with staircases ascending and descending which evoke a sense of the Minotaur’s lair being just below the surface; entrances and exits occur from many different places, adding to the overall sense of unfathomable intricacy.
Sounds (Max Pappenheim) constantly suggest synapses of the mind seizing up, as reality bleeds in – or perhaps out – of the actions and deeds of the characters. Clever lighting effects (Richard Howell) produce almost magical transitions or suggestions of life in free-fall. There is actual magic too (a flower sprouts from Gump’s mouth) although precisely why there is remains a mystery.
Group choreography (John Ross) is used to suggest a tribal culture, a miasma of despair, a surfeit of excess – or perhaps it’s just yet another feather from Enron‘s cap. Certainly, the choreography here is not a coherent language and, unlike in Enron, it doesn’t have a clear purpose; it doesn’t bring a sinister or jocular sensibility to proceedings; it doesn’t bind or illuminate the text. It just is.
Director Ledwich uses every trick in her arsenal to keep interest piqued and to give the moribund narrative a sense of zest and style. As far as it goes, this is successful. The play may not be exciting but nor is it dull. If you did not see Enron or missed the film Margin Call or kept away from reading the financial pages for a decade or so, Labyrinth may tell you a fresh story; and even if you know the story, its inherently shocking nature still holds interest.
Central performances are engaging.
Sean Delaney, who showed such skill in his professional debut in Rabbit Hole, plays John, the Gumpish character here. He emphasises the homespun nature of his sensibilities with a very high pitch in his voice. Odd. Much more successful are the moments of desperate urgency or controlled panic, or when Delaney assuredly convinces others of particular courses of action. He even manages to make a ludicrous scene that has John snorting a pound or so of cocaine in one go seem possible. Quite an achievement.
The trapped-in-the-headlights shroud that Delaney wraps around John works well and, really, only John ever seems like a real person. His scenes with Philip Bird’s Frank, his father or the spirit of his father or whatever he is, are nicely judged by both actors and provide the most dramatically satisfying scenes.
Tom Weston-Jones cuts a fine figure as the irrepressible and irresponsible rainmaker, Charlie. (Yes, Steel has chosen very precise names for her characters). He masters the banking patter well and arrogance screams from every pore. He does not really seem charismatic enough to inspire the awe in which his fellows hold him which is slightly bizarre given his physical charms and well tailored outfits. Just as his shoes need to be properly shined (a specific joke turns on this), Weston-Jones needs more natural polish in his performance.
As Howard, the hirer and firer from the Boardroom, Martin McDougall is a blustery tyrant, a wafer-thin cardboard cut-out. Howard is obsessed with yo-yos and that really is his stand-out attribute; a pity, then, that McDougall cannot master the tricks of the string. This is yet another example of an added gloss which turns out to be not glossy enough.
None of the other characters is sufficiently well written to permit superb performances, but Joseph Balderrama, Elena Saurel and Alexia Traverse-Healy all give whole-hearted and sprightly performances.
In the end, this is a much better production of Labyrinth than the text calls for. Ledwich, the creatives and cast try everything to make the play take off. But, like the Dodo bird, Labyrinth is a source of some real interest but it never has any prospect of flying.