Monday, 11 February 2013

Theatre review: MONEY the Game Show

There's been no shortage of plays about the financial crisis in the last five years but Clare Duffy manages to find both a new angle, and a particularly apt one to depict the cavalier attitude of bankers gambling billions of dollars of other people's money every day. Queenie (Lucy Ellinson) and Casino (Brian Ferguson) used to be hedge fund managers, but tonight they're putting on a show that reflects how their high-risk day job worked. The show starts in the Bush's bar area, where the audience are divided in half according to ticket number, and allocated to either Casino or Queenie's side of the auditorium. We're now on a team that's going to play MONEY the Game Show. At stake is £10,000 - in real £1 coins (I can confirm this - my own comparatively gentle bit of audience participation was to check that the coins were real on behalf of Queenie's team.)

The two relate the story of how they met and predicted the collapse of sub-prime mortgages, investing accordingly in the hopes of a subsequent crash, a gamble that paid off - for one of them. Interspersed with this are a series of games betting for the cash in the room. Given the bubble the property market turned out to be in, these games largely revolve around soap bubbles and bursting balloons.


Like any play about the financial crisis and the knife-edge the world's finances still rest on, there's a terrifying bleakness at the heart of MONEY the Game Show. It's represented here by the stakes the characters are playing for: Whoever loses will commit suicide at the end of the show. The result isn't fixed - a scoreboard in the bar showed Queenie slightly ahead before tonight's show, which she also won (thanks to a member of our team called James having a very fast wrist action. It both isn't, and kind of is, what it sounds like.) So, in the story that parallels the game show element, tonight it was Casino who misjudged when to cash in, and suffered catastrophic results when even the apocalyptic crash he was betting on turned out to be an underestimation.


I'd never heard of Ellinson until last year but since then she's suddenly become a very regular face on the London stage and an actress who can be relied on to give a powerful performance. And so she does here, Queenie exhibiting a manic excitement for the game that is her life, tempered by a constant underlying terror of what is at risk, her jolly hostess exterior sometimes cracking as she demands that her team's chosen representative win the game at all costs. (There is a lot of audience participation but it's entirely on a voluntary basis, you won't get dragged onto the stage just for sitting in the wrong seat.) Ferguson matches her energy with a performance that jumps between the clownish and the aggressive, Casino the barrow-boy trader who made something out of nothing, in contrast to Queenie coming from generations of bankers.


Duffy's play (she also directs) takes a bit of a left turn at the end that doesn't quite work until she cleverly spins a new light on it. The metaphors also get a little bit muddled in the scenes following the loser's death but overall this is an easy show to recommend. The use of real legal tender as a prop in a fake game, pound coins being thrown around in children's buckets and dropped casually around the stage, proves to be the show's masterstroke: The lasting impression is of the horribly arbitrary nature of what we decide represents everything of value, and how easily this invented value can come and go.


And yes, there's security in place to make sure the audience don't wander off with the cash. But nice try.

MONEY the Game Show by Clare Duffy is booking until the 2nd of March at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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