Monday, 5 February 2018

Theatre review: Dry Powder

With another financial crash threatening, a play about the people who play Monopoly with people’s livelihoods would seem a well-timed production for Hampstead Theatre. So it’s a shame Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder turns out to have very little to say about them, or much else for that matter. Rick (Aidan McArdle) runs his own private equity firm with his partners and trusted lieutenants Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell,) who offer contrasting ways of dealing: Jenny focuses on the numbers and is ruthless in pursuit of profit, while Seth has a more creative outlook and worries about the way the company’s public image affects their ability to do business. It’s this latter approach that Rick ignored when he acquired and liquidated a supermarket chain, laying off hundreds of staff on the same day that he threw himself an overblown engagement party.

When the New York Times runs a story about this Rick becomes the public face of business fat-cats, his firm and their partners the targets of anti-capitalist protests.

Not that they care much until the bad PR sees their investors bail on them, and they urgently need something to get them out of the hole. Over the last few months Seth has been building a relationship with Jeff (Joseph Balderrama,) CEO of a bespoke luggage manufacturing company in California, which needs to buy out its retiring founder. They’ve developed a plan to build the business that would bring a decent profit to the firm as well as supporting American jobs, which would help with their image problem. Seth’s promise that they won’t make major job cuts has secured a bargain price, but as they finalise the deal Jenny inevitably recommends that they renege on the promise, gutting the company even more savagely than they did the supermarket.

Anna Ledwich’s production zips through the story, just about managing not to get bogged down in the detailed trading language used – I was generally following the rough lines of what the characters’ plans for the business were, and I think the title refers to large cash reserves kept in case of an urgent deal, but I wouldn’t want to swear to any of the details. In any case the outcome is pretty obvious from the start, and the whole thing feels like a waste of Hayley Atwell: Her character is essentially a robot, unable to see any nuance beyond the cold, hard numbers involved in the deal, and if she didn’t have a pronounced hatred of Seth she would have zero emotions to display in the entire play. Most of Jenny’s dialogue starts with her barking “I apologise” with no trace of sincerity, as if she’s aware her brusque manner and open contempt for anyone who isn’t exactly like her require these constant apologies, but has no idea what it actually means. Atwell makes a good robot, but it doesn’t exactly give her anywhere to go.

Riley fares better, (also I want his shoes,) with a less black-and-white character. Seth’s hardly the good guy, profiting from these deals as much as anyone, but at least he has some sense of conflict and morality. Perhaps if it had worked better for me as a comedy I would have seen more point to spending time with these unpleasant characters, but most of tonight’s laughs came from a personal bugbear of mine, namely random, vaguely topical references thrown in for an easy laugh of recognition (“Buzzfeed!” “Ted Talks!”) In the end Ledwich and her cast help the two hours pass entertainingly enough, but I don’t know what Dry Powder was meant to achieve: We open with the assumption that financiers are cunts, and a couple of hours later come to the conclusion that financiers are cunts.

Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess is booking until the 3rd of March at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

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