Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 12 January, 2009

We aesthetes on the arts pages are not always as well versed as we might be in the goings-on covered elsewhere in the FT. However, I’m fairly certain that selling a business on a false prospectus is a no-no, and that seems to be what has been done with Steve Thompson’s third play. At the very least, it has been sold long, as “a fresh take on the financial crisis”. In fact, this 90-minute comedy-drama set in the media department of a City trading house has barely the faintest whiff of crunching credit about it.
True, there are a couple of passing references to the market “topping”, but there is no indication of any subsequent plunge. True, too, traders are shown short-selling and rumour-mongering for their own ends, but without any implication that such activity was contributing to a global collapse. And true a third time, we see savagery in job losses, but only as part of the corporate Darwinism which holds that you are only as good as your last trade and acts swiftly to cull the weak, no different from the sales competition in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. One character remarks in the first scene that “This is a raging bull market”… not something that could plausibly have been said in recent memory, even during sexual role-play as here. A gag about the West End musical of Lord Of The Rings, which closed six months ago, further suggests that Thompson’s play has been around some little while, and is more the beneficiary of events than a work of foresight and topicality.
OK, that’s what the play is not. What it is is as razor-sharp as Thompson’s previous works, Damages, set in a tabloid newsroom and Whipping It Up, in a parliamentary whips’ office. He is supremely adept at peopling these dog-eat-dog environments with plausible dogs (and bitches), at portraying stratagems and counter-stratagems with relish, at demarcating the limits of personal loyalties and finding them pretty bloody paltry. So it is here, with one partial exception. Jess (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the only woman we see in the department, is to some extent the moral centre of the play. She is not a pleasant character, much given to scathing condescension, but she constitutes our channel between her colleagues: Donny, an archetypal predatory City wide-boy, and “Spoon” (as in silver), the newly recruited graduate who rapidly shows his readiness to play as dirty as Donny. A fourth trader, PJ (Nicolas Tennant in fine vexed form), falls by the wayside; when his wife inquires, on bonus day, whether they will be holidaying in Barbados or Bournemouth, he sheepishly replies, “Bruges.”
Andrew Scott’s Donny is a loathsome git, which is to say an excellent performance; recent drama-school graduate Christian Roe as Spoon perhaps relies a little too much on his own freshness to stand for the faux-innocence of his character. The ending, both in the office and later between Donny and his young son, is a little confected and ambiguously sentimental after our exposure to a milieu in which even honesty is a weapon, in the form of threats to shop colleagues to the bank’s compliance office. Roxana Silbert once again directs with pace and verve, but ultimately the play is a broadside at City traders in general rather than a particular, up-to-the-moment bill of indictment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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