IT is no surprise that since the 2008 financial crisis, the arts world has turned it sights on the seedier side of capitalism. Often with great success as evidenced by stage play Enron (2009) and film The Big Short (2015).
The latest director to cast their beady eye over the dark side of capitalism is Sarah Burgess whose play Dry Powder has just opened at the Hampstead Theatre in North London.
It is an ambitious piece of work for which Burgess must be applauded, sending its search light into the grubby world of private equity. But it does not make for easy viewing on many levels. Financial terms litter the script although buyers of the play’s programme can get to grips with them beforehand if they turn to the useful ‘glossary of terms’.
The characters, with the honourable exception of Seth, are all detestable while ultimately Burgess’s take on the private equity industry is pretty damning. It is primarily occupied by heartless individuals whose only objective is the pursuit of massive investment returns – for their high net worth investors and of course for themselves.
To hell with the consequences of their actions: lost jobs and assets summarily disposed with. The bigger the return the better and the quicker they make it the happier they are. Capitalism at its rawest, its most vile. You almost want to wipe yourself clean at the end of it all.
The play is built around a deal that KMM Capital Management, a Manhattan based private equity manager, is trying to complete. It wants to purchase company Landmark Luggage (its trade is in its title).
KMM director Seth (Tom Riley) has been working on the purchase assiduously, in the process assuring Landmark boss Jeff Schrader (Joseph Balderrama) that all will be good once the deal has been done. Jobs in the company’s headquarters of Sacramento will be safeguarded and with a little fine tuning the company will embark on a growth phase, enabling KMM at some stage to crystallise their investment at a vast profit.
Everyone seems happy (Seth, Jeff and Seth’s boss Rick – Aidan McArdle) bar Seth’s fellow director Jenny (Hayley Atwell).
Jenny, a ruthless driven piece of work, believes the best return on Landmark can be made by offshoring all production to Bangladesh, sacking all bar a handful of the Sacramento staff and selling its luggage into China. In other words, cut costs to the bone.
To hell with the fact that loyal workers will be dumped on the jobs market. Only investment returns matter. The only love affair Jenny has had is with algebra as a child – and her job. She is happy working 27 hours at a time if she can do a deal that will reap rich rewards for KMM. The fact that her supporting analysts cannot keep up with her does not bother her, even if they end up in hospital.
So, who will ultimately win the battle? Seth, an individual with a conscience? Or Jenny who probably eats a mix of matchstick men and steel bars for breakfast? It is for Rick to determine and for you to find out. The only clue I will give is that this is not a play where the moral case for private equity is advanced. They are duplicitous individuals who are quite happy lying if it means more lucre.
Sadly, even Jeff is not the caring boss he initially portrays himself as. He has debts – a loss making winery and a mega mortgage – to address. Will he put himself or his workers first?
There are other interconnected sub plots – KMM’s bad press not helped by fallout from Rick’s ostentatious engagement party, jittery investors (limited partners) and Rick’s flirtation with respectability through an act of philanthropy.
Atwell plays Jenny to perfection. Indeed, you could argue her character is the most honest of the four. She never veers from her mission – to get the best deal for KMM and its investors. But it does not mean you will like Atwell’s Jenny. She possesses not one ounce of compassion or humanity. The closest you will get to a robot dressed up as a human. If I met her at a dinner party, I would run for my life. But then she probably would never have the time to go to a party. Work, work and more work.
The play’s opening and closing are a little underwhelming – Jenny first discussing with Rick a speech she will be making to finance students at New York University – and then at the play’s death her delivering it (painful to listen to). And I cannot say I was wholly convinced by McArdle as Rick. Yes, he reveals his ruthlessness and duplicity on occasion – as well as his vanity – but he does not come across as quite hard enough. Maybe Atwell’s Jenny sets the ‘bastard’ bar too high.
Occasionally, the play disappears up itself in financial jargon but the set is clever (well done Andrew D Edwards) and it all has an energy that keeps you watching straight through for one hour and 45 minutes (hats off to director Anna Ledwich).
If you are not quite sure whether you despise the antics of the ‘City’ – here and in the US – Dry Powder will probably help make up your mind. I imagine Jeremy Corbyn would love it – if you know what I mean.
Jenny: Hayley Atwell
Jeff: Joseph Balderrama
Rick: Aidan McArdle
Seth: Tom Riley
Writer: Sarah Burgess
Director: Anna Ledwich
Designer: Andrew D Edwards