BWW Review: LABYRINTH, Hampstead Theatre, 9 September 2016

Beth Steel, who scored at hit at the Hampstead in 2014 with a play about the 1980s miners' strike, has dipped back into history to create one with sickening relevance to the current financial crisis. It's 1978, and Wall Street is packed with cowboys gleefully eyeing up their new frontier: Latin America.

Banks lent staggering sums to these developing countries - ostensibly to fund infrastructural projects, but mostly providing despots and corrupt politicians with a payday - only to see interest rates skyrocket following an oil crisis in the early Eighties. Mexico, $80 billion in debt, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, leading to an IMF bailout that imposed strict austerity on the masses, while protecting both the elites and the banks responsible.

In case the parallel wasn't clear, the unrepentant bankers discuss setting their sights on Greece next as the play draws to a grim conclusion. That's one of the weaknesses of Steel's piece: though it balances meticulously researched and, in Anna Ledwich's kinetic production, paced like a blood-pumping thriller, it doesn't trust the audience enough to reach such conclusions independently.

That's most apparent in banker John's attempts to separate himself from his jailed fraudster dad, who cheated people out of their loans with fake sales. Though it's a salient point that there's no difference between those low-level cons and Wall Street's confidence tricksters - other than scale, and the protection of big business - it's hammered home far too much, particularly in a second half that feels schematic and overlong.

The play is also haunted by what came before, from the macho hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street to - inescapably - Rupert Goold's indelible production of Lucy Prebble's Enron, the latter a slicker and more multifaceted version of economics as multisensory theatrical experience.

But if somewhat predictable, Steel's piece is still a gripping ride. She uses the tried and tested introduction to a labyrinthine world through a neophyte: working-class John, inducted into the sleazy business by soulless, supercilious climber Charlie, who's aiming for the corner office. Initially shocked, he's soon seduced by the whiskey and cigars, coke and hookers, bribes and backroom deals, and the promise of limitless power and limitless cash.

Steel provides a detailed portrait of this world, from swaggering traders compounding the debt crisis through a system of "extend and pretend" and committing to a blinkered, relentless optimism, to the conference deal-making, off-shore tax dodges, or viewing a country purely as a market. And "countries don't go bankrupt", blusters Charlie - ominous foreshadowing alert.

Recent RADA graduate Sean Delaney is convincing as deer-in-the-headlights John, swamped by a cheap, ill-fitting suit, then trying on his colleagues' attitudes and lingo as he does their Brooks Brothers suits, but his later incarnation as crafty, ruthless financier doesn't quite click. Philip Bird is excellent as the deadbeat dad who haunts him, their complex bond poignant when left to develop naturally.

There's good support too from Tom Weston Jones as the Mephistophelian city boy mentor, Martin McDougall as the wily Southern boss (though the yo-yo is a quirk too far), Alexia Traverse-Healy as an icy IMF representative, Joseph Balderrama as multiple Latin American head honchos, and Elena Saurel as an investigative journalist - though the latter is mainly reduced to voice of conscience.

Perhaps the real star is Andrew D. Edwards' sleek traverse set, its neon grid setting scenes (patriotic red, white and blue shifting to golf course green) or effectively projecting John's interior struggles. Lights twitch and flicker alarmingly, the floor glows a demonic red, and its versatile basement seems to beckon him into further hellish depths. That's matched by some expressive choices from Ledwich, who produces striking hallucinatory sequences, topped off by a nightmarish Day of the Dead carnival.

Ultimately, as drama, this ambitious piece is stymied by its competing elements - didactic history, high-wire satire, bloody morality play, earnest character study - but it certainly produces a damning critique of a toxic, still pervasive mentality. "I've done no different to anyone else," protests John, and while that shows a fatal lack of personal responsibility, it's also a cold, hard truth about the immoral overreach of a dominant industry.

Labyrinth is at Hampstead Theatre until 8 October

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Marianka Swain