LABYRINTH Hampstead Theatre, NW3


Beth Steel, who turned Hampstead Theatre into a coalpit for her miners’ strike play Wonderland, does her research slowly and in depth; but here again she shows the discipline – together with director Anna Ledwich – to craft a fast-moving show without preaching , giving individual characters a properly gripping personal evolution. Here, she tracks the big push of American banks in the late 70s, lending to South American countries seemingly in the grip of an unstoppable boom (it keeps happening: remember how people talked about the “BRIC” economies including Brazil, now so troubled?). That many of the loans were for dubious, profiteering, corrupt, unnecessary or unfinished projects , enriching local despots and overpaid American consultants more than the peoples of those nations, was sparsely reported. Those journalists who did suffered the wrath of powerful bank interests.  So when Mexico defaulted in 1982 , a bailout was inevitable and rebounded on the American taxpayer already in recession.

We watch this through a handful of bankers: Martin McDougall as folksy, yoyo- twirling Howard the boss, all a-brag about his Yankee ancestors: there’s the appalling cynical Charlie – Tom Weston-Jones swaggering superbly, all Harvard and Brooks Bros suits – and at the centre of it, innocent ambitious John, desperate to shake off the shame of his imprisoned fraudster father, who nips in and out tormenting him. Which is ever more more painful as it becomes clear that the newly confident John is no better than his Dad: manipulating loan analyses to the banks advantage rather than reflecting cautious reality.

Sean Delaney is perfect as John, a wounded child desperate to be successful and “respected”, sucked in to a world where it is better to be simply “envied”, and torn implicitly between conscience and the imperative to carry on carrying on with the absurdity.  A strong nimble ensemble, often expressing the mounting chaos in flash freezes and movement, become finance ministers, joshing young bankers and at last rioters. Few women – this is a mans world, and no credit to them – but we have Alexia Traverse-Healy as a disdainful lawyer and IMF chair, and Elena Saurel as the journalist who taunts John with uncomfortable facts.

The big lie collapses; in a perfect moment Charlie whines ‘I’m not having FUN any more” and lowers his nose to the inevitable cocaine. Howard’s yo-yo dangles helpless at the end of its string, stripped of momentum. John’s suffering is greatest: the welter of surreal nightmare and personal meltdown is arrestingly staged in flashes and choreographed riot. The neon, noise and stylized movement makes it feel akin to ENRON, and in a good way. And the horrid historic realities of failing, bankrupt peoples and the panic of richer government does not distract from the central incredulous voice in every onlooker’s mind. Which is saying “Hang on, this was all last century! Reckless lending for big bank profits, defaults, tax baleouts, austerity, misery, exemptions from pain for the  richest.. It was 24 years ago!. So how the f— did we let it happen again with the subprime loans crash, and then again to Greece?’

Answer comes there none. History isn’t an upward curve, it’s a yo-yo.

Box office 020 7722 9301 to 26 Nov.

RATING four 

4 Meece Rating


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