The crash of Lehman Brothers in 2008 feels all too recent, with the effects of the financial crisis lingering like smoke in the air; after the success of his Maddening Rain (2010), playwright Nicholas Pierpan returns to the banking theme for another surprisingly sympathetic look at the benighted foot-soldiers of capitalism.
The focus is on two families; Edward (Tim Delap) is nuanced as a man struggling with redundancy after losing his job at Lehman Brothers, his wife Fen (Kellie Bright) spurring him on to awkward days spent networking at Starbucks. Meanwhile, his childhood friend Jack (Ben Lee) is in the pink, cutting deals while his immaculately brittle wife Linda (Marianne Oldham) intersperses her leisure with babies, yoga and the discovery of fine art.
Parallel to this world of polished domesticity are the offices of First Brook Capital, presided over by the machinating Sir Roger (Robert Gwilym), with the aid of his utterly convincing PA Emma (Alecky Blythe). Not too weighed down by technical detail or jargon, the text makes light work of the deals that structure this play, both financial and social. Here, life is a game to be played and won at any cost, with no friendship too important to be sacrificed, and morality as flexible as the bankers’ yoga-bunny wives.
Part of what makes American Psycho so compelling is its obsession with the minute, telling detail – the fetishisation of the trappings of wealth from luxurious house right down to the endless permutations of the perfectly judged business card. Here, there is a nod to the aesthetic in the recurring theme of Thomas Pink shirts, but these characters are not just in love with money and what it can buy them; they care about keeping their children in private schools and living in zone 1, about maintaining a standard of living associated with the circle they’ve dragged themselves into, rather than relentless acquisition and greed. The need to keep up appearances, though, doesn’t fully explain the reckless behaviour behind the financial crisis, the psychology of men – or mostly men – who take risks as easily as breathing, inhaling the toxic social atmosphere like fresh air. Edward’s time in the wilderness transforms him past human being to new heights of monstrousness, seeming to argue, not entirely convincingly, not for the sinfulness of the individual banker, but for the poisonousness of the culture they create together.
The staging is striking – a wide, shining black platform furnished only with two desks – but its width and the spacing of the actors at opposite sides, while conveying their alienation, also left the audience’s heads turning from side to side as though watching a peculiarly ponderous tennis match. As slick as the suits that inhabit it, the production nonetheless drags a little at points; the progression of the plot is relentless and meticulous, leaving no polished stone unturned. This play is expansive in its focus, from bankers’ offices to their homes and children’s schools and coffee shops and restaurants, articulating a whole world in compelling detail, and creating a picture of an alternative normal, moving and repellent in equal measure.