Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 22 July, 2009

Huge as it looms in business history, costing some 20,000 people their jobs and many their life savings, there is something absurd to the lay mind about the accounting systems established by Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow that allowed Enron to keep hundreds of millions in debt off the books whilst booking assumed future profits now. Lucy Prebble’s play, as directed by Rupert Goold for Headlong Theatre, feels like a satire, even at times a romp, yet each daftness is based in actuality. Enron’s conduct in the deregulated electricity market of California is portrayed by a bunch of executives wielding light-sabres: well, one of the terms they coined for their predatory approach was “Death Star”. Fastow referred to his debt-eating shell companies as “Raptors”, so there is a recurring visual Jurassic Park motif (including even the line “Clever girl!”). The Lehman Brothers appear as conjoined twins, speaking in unison and wearing one huge joint overcoat. (OK, maybe that last one’s not so factually grounded.)
Both script and production make it clear that this is not a historical reconstruction but rather a speculative fiction. Nevertheless, the ground gets covered, staged with Goold’s customary aplomb and powered by a clutch of fine central performances. Samuel West is at first unrecognisable, so far does he go in his sociopathic rendition of Skilling; Tom Goodman-Hill’s Fastow is more neurotic, a Bloom to Skilling’s Bialystock. Tim Pigott-Smith has a touch of the Ed Begley Sr about him as CEO Kenneth Lay, following a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of his own. It is not a particularly woman-friendly play: Amanda Drew is excellent as dissenting executive Claudia Roe but is simply written out early in Act Two. Still, if things are occasionally overdone, it is in keeping with a mood of what Alan Greenspan described, in a market context, as “irrational exuberance”.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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