Beth Steel
Hampstead Theatre

Martin McDougall (Howard) and Sean Delaney (John) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Labyrinth Credit: Manuel Harlan
Sean Delaney (John) and Philip Bird (Frank) Credit: Manuel Harlan

Stories of financial shenanigans on a global scale featuring those smartly dressed American Masters of the Universe have fuelled many popular films and plays.

Anyone who has seen the original version of Wall Street or Enron will immediately recognise the underlying thesis behind this new play by Beth Steel, set in a five-year period commencing in the late 1970s. In this case, there are even parallels with Glengarry Glen Ross and, for those wishing to look further back, The Merchant of Venice.

Labyrinth is closer to a thriller than an exposé, although it does shine a light on the callousness with which bankers line their own pockets without being too scrupulous about who will eventually have to pay for their misdeeds.

Director Anna Ledwich and designer Andrew D Edwards have chosen to use a fashionable traverse staging with the floor and walls presenting their own labyrinth. This setting with minimal props ensures that the pace rarely drops during 2½ hours that can seem melodramatic and have been almost too clinically plotted, down to the heavy-handed symbolism to hammer home points that are already well made.

The basic plot follows the rise and rise of Sean Delaney as John Anderson. We first see him as a callow but ambitious graduate seeking a job in banking. He also has skeletons in his personal cupboard, particularly Philip Bird’s invisible and possibly dead Frank. This is the father that no self-respecting banker could tolerate, being far too close to home as a fraudster who was eventually imprisoned when his luck ran out.

Having overcome a dangerous streak of integrity, John climbs the greasy pole remarkably quickly, following in the footsteps of sleazy Charlie played by Tom Weston Jones.

Their job in “the fastest growing industry on earth” is to lend money to Latin American countries and they are good at it. Before too long, with backhanders flying around to grease willing palms, Mexico, Brazil and Chile have got in so deep that it takes most of each country’s GDP to pay off interest on ever-spiralling debts.

The obvious solution is to borrow more, which isn’t a problem when interest rates are low. If any of this sounds familiar, it is probably because you read the papers and can immediately spot parallels between the disaster waiting to happen on stage and what might be just around the corner for Britain and quite possibly the world.

When interest hits 18%, a crash is inevitable but even the financiers could not predict that Mexico really would choose to go bust.

The sad thing is that if only those in power around the world had researched this period properly, 25 years later we might have avoided our own generation’s slump in which, once again, what the banks lost the man in the street had to pay for.

This play, which seems closely modelled on Enron, is well researched and provides some interesting data but rarely gets far beneath the surface, although it makes a good job of highlighting the amorality or possibly immorality of those who lend to the poor, causing distress and chaos, while making themselves wealthy. It is even implied (probably unreasonably) that the IMF was eventually complicit in protecting the wealthy at the expense of their poorer neighbours.

Labyrinth may not be perfect but it should be compulsory viewing for both politicians and anybody working in or around the finance industry. It might just show them the consequences of unfettered greed and help us all to avoid the next financial crisis of epic proportions.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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