Labyrinth, Hampstead Theatre, London, review: Dynamic and deeply researched

Some may feel it is a bit too school-of-Enron for comfort

Paul Taylor
Thursday 08 September 2016 13:44 BST
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Sean Delaney as John and Elena Saurel as Grace in Labyrinth
Sean Delaney as John and Elena Saurel as Grace in Labyrinth (Manuel Harlan)

Beth Steel doesn’t shrink from taking on big subjects. Her last work, Wonderland, explored the 1980s miners’ strike and its cultural fall-out, rightly winning her an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. Now she shifts her attention to the world of Wall Street bankers and their part in fomenting the Latin American debt crisis which exploded in 1982. It’s a deeply researched piece, premiered here with mordant dynamism in Anna Ledwich’s traverse-stage production. Some may feel it is a bit too school-of-Enron for comfort, though I would say that its moral indignation is fiercer than that mustered by Lucy Prebble’s incisive and flashy hit play about the collapse of the outrageous corporate con-trick pulled by the Enron energy company.

Labyrinth begins in 1978 in New York. Greenhorn John Anderson (the excellent Sean Delaney) lands a job with a bank and is soon being tutored by his bullish mentor Charlie (Tom Weston Jones) in the dubious practice of lending millions of dollars to Latin American governments for big infrastructural initiatives, such as power stations. John has come up the hard way, unlike his Ivy League colleagues, and at first bridles when he discovers that most of the projects will remain unbuilt and go massively over-budget, with money diverted into bribes and the coffers of the elite. Charlie takes the amoral view: “Our concern is securing the loan. Period,” to prevent another eager bank from doing so. Besides, “countries don’t go bankrupt”. The prospect of unimaginable personal wealth sucks John into the system.

The maze-like neon circuitry that flanks Andrew D Edwards’s sleek set flickers and frazzles as John fights to keep a grip on his sanity when Mexico defaults on its sovereign debt in 1982, exposing the recklessness of the loans and bringing the world economy to the brink. The play keeps track of the fluctuations in the world at large and in John’s fraught inner weather with shrewd wit and understanding, powered forward by the elegantly hyped-up company.

Our hero’s chance encounters in various foreign spots with Grace (Elena Saurel), a financial journalist sceptical of economic miracles, perhaps come over as too pat a way of questioning his illusions about debt and development: “You know, the word credit is from the Latin credere, ‘to believe’. All this debt, it just maintains a fiction.” But there's a real creepy power in the way that his father Frank (played with just the right seedy palliness by Philip Bird) keeps crossing his path. “You are trying to destroy me because I’m everything you are not,” declares John. But the implacable re-appearances of this small-time swindler and jail-bird who ruined his family and may now exist only in John’s mind shudderingly bring home how, in the end, it’s a case of like father, like son. They’d make quite a team, claims Frank. “You’re just as unreal as I am.”

Wonderland intimated a continuum between Thatcher’s defeat of the miners and the steady erosion of workers’ rights and the culture of zero-hours contracts today. Here as the bail-out of Mexico by the IMF hits the ordinary people through harsh austerity measures far more than the elite or the banking system itself, the contemporary parallels are all too painful. A macabre Day of the Dead carnival runs rampant. It may well be that the play is too much of a lesson, but it’s one that patently can’t be learnt too often.

To 8 October. 0207 722 930

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