Dry Powder

Sarah Burgess
Hampstead Theatre

Hayley Atwell (Jenny) Credit: Alastair Muir
Hayley Atwell (Jenny) and Tom Riley (Seth) Credit: Alastair Muir
Hayley Atwell (Jenny), Tom Riley (Seth) and Aidan McArdle (Rick) Credit: Alastair Muir

Most theatre folk give the impression that the world of business is as arcane and malign as (say) witchcraft. However, Edward Hall has always been an artistic director enamoured and enthralled by plays that take on those Masters of the Universe who mysteriously make themselves rich at the expense of lesser mortals.

Dry Powder, which has found its way across the Atlantic from the Public where Claire Danes led the cast, is a coruscating satire that pokes fun at the private equity community, while barely covering its gleeful subtext about the joys of living in the United States while Donald Trump is in his presidential pomp.

Anna Ledwich directs a well-balanced, high profile cast perfectly maintaining pace throughout the dramatic evening. She is helped by Andrew D Edwards’s stylish set, which plants minimalist props in front of a series of doubly symbolic revolving mirrors, both reflecting the audience back on themselves and, along with Max Pappenheim’s sound design, imitating the gradual collapse of the theoretically solid world that the drama depicts.

The setup is very simple. Aidan McArdle plays Rick, a supremely successful corporate raider who has worked 70 hours a week for 30 years but still loves the thrill of the chase and the inevitable kill of every defenceless victim.

His sidekicks are chalk and cheese. Hayley Atwell, making a welcome return to the stage having built a fantastic film and TV career, plays Jenny. This dogged mathematician turned corporate executive whose view of life is direct, to say the least. In killer stilettos, she comes across as ruthless but only because the thrusting young businesswoman can only ever see a single, mathematically-proven outcome and will achieve it, whatever the impediments.

The art to her science is Seth played by Tom Riley. This wheeler-dealer’s approach is sales-oriented, the single goal of getting deals done. However, much to his cost, he suffers from that fatal flaw: a conscience, which is the last thing that you need in this industry.

The pair of them fight tooth and nail throughout the 1¾-hours duration over the fate of a luggage company employing hundreds of people in Sacramento. While Seth humours Joseph Balderrama in the role of CEO Jeff, Jenny has other more profitable ideas.

Broadly, the choice comes down to protecting jobs and lives in the United States or maximising income stream. This is the kind of conundrum that executives and Presidents on the other side of the pond seemingly debate at length on a day-to-day basis, so it is great to enjoy this wholly credible insight into the thought processes of those making these decisions.

Sarah Burgess has a nice line in wisecracks but also clearly has done detailed research to ensure that the business elements of this play are convincing. She repeatedly sets up moral dilemmas for the characters to resolve, for example open in the evening by pointing out that the home team has just made the front page of the New York Times for all of the wrong reasons and badly needs a PR makeover.

Given the paucity of plays written with the specific intention of exposing the world of business, Hampstead is almost guaranteed to sell out this run to the local worthies. However, there must be every chance of a West End transfer for a sparkling piece that is funny, savvy and deeply cynical about the world of finance and, judging by comments such as “it’s your name on a building that lasts”, to anyone who has passed Trump Tower or considered the methods of its occupants in recent months.

Tickets are probably already at a premium but, if you get the chance, do not miss out on this fascinating exposé of the cynical world of high finance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher