The Money is back. During its first tour in 2014-15, the ‘immersive theatre experience’ was staged in a variety of venues that spoke to its ostensible themes: power, the distribution of wealth, democratic decision-making, self-interest, altruism, the greater good, the lesser evil, compromise. Now, in post-lockdown 2021, it has landed at County Hall in London.
County Hall was the headquarters of the London County Council (LCC) and then the Greater London Council (GLC), until the latter was dismantled in 1986 after its then-leader, Ken Livingstone, pissed off Margaret Thatcher once too often. Now the building houses the Sea Life London Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure! London, a Premier Inn, and a Marriott Hotel. Once the seat of a socialist local government, now an entertainment complex.
But in the building’s central chamber, where The Money is played, tiers of dark red leather seats look down on a huge central table. Solemn columns rise to the vaulted ceiling. Carved, polished wood. A Sense of Occasion. I arrive early. There are only a few people in their seats. We wait. The space is gloomy, and people’s whispers sound like scrabbling mice or ghosts in the walls. The vibes are weird.
At 7.25pm, the rest of the audience – Players (participants, who sit around the table) and Silent Witnesses (audience members) – finally arrive, drinks in hand, chattering. Loads of them get to their seats and take their masks off, like it’s restaurant-rules, not theatre-rules. This is an audience who are here to have a good time. There are two Hosts – one in red, one in yellow – who try to settle everyone down. Red is stricter, headteacherly in a slightly creepy way, like she runs a boarding school where at night all the girls are secretly injected with a potion that gradually turns them into robots.
Eventually, Yellow leaves the chamber. There are three bangs on the door, and then she re-enters like Black Rod, holding aloft a briefcase containing The Money: £275. She places it on the table, along with a big bell and a book of rules, next to a silver gong.
– All the Players need to come to a unanimous decision about how to spend the money.
– They have 1 hour to do so.
– They must ‘be as visionary as possible.’
– If they don’t agree – in writing – by the end of the hour, then all the money rolls over to the next show. The rules state, ‘This is not a failure.’
– Silent Witnesses must ‘buy-in’ to the game by paying £20, if they want to influence decisions.
– The Players cannot: a) give the money to charity b) split the money, or c) do anything illegal.
– The last rule is a question: What can we do together that we cannot do apart?
Judging by reviews from 2014-15, I think The Money might have felt different seven years ago. Players were called Benefactors. Silent Witnesses paid £10 to join in; it was cheaper. I think you were allowed to give the money to charity. It took place in smaller, more experimental venues. There is a sense, in old reviews and in interviews with the show’s creator Seth Honnor, that although The Money has the potential to bring out the worst in people, ultimately it is most successful when it creates the opportunity for its participants to understand ‘value’ in a new way: to find unexpected good in themselves and in others.
The wording of The Rules gestures towards this sweetness: the calmly benevolent denial of the possibility of ‘failure’; the virtuous implication that this hour encourages the triumph of community over self-interest; the idea that this is an arena in which the only limits are those of the Players’ imaginations. But this sits uneasily with the actual facts of the situation, which has been deliberately gamified (‘Players’) to invite conflict and competition (you cannot split the money, it’s all or nothing), and in which one obvious means of ‘doing good’ (charitable donation) has been foreclosed.
I give the most vocal Players shorthand names in my head and my notebook: the Ringleader, the Teacher, the Nice Northern Man. The Ringleader is the big personality of the evening. She cracks jokes and asides. She says that she feels ‘the weight of responsibility’ – but she means a responsibility towards the audience, not to spend the money wisely. She feels that she is there to perform, to entertain, to put on a show. I find myself disliking some of the Players, and rooting for others, as if I know them, as if they are celebrities or reality TV personalities.
Later, I wonder whether there is something irresponsible about a piece of immersive theatre that allows – even encourages – its audience members to view its participants in that way. When professional performers stand onstage as themselves, they tend to have more of an understanding of what that work involves: they can construct and perform a boundaried version of the self, a realistic mask. But it can be harder for non-performers not to reveal parts of themselves that they’d rather not, especially if they’re nervous, or they feel the pressure to be entertaining. And the whole event is so hands-off – Red and Yellow only speak to the Players again at the end of the hour, to confirm the result – that there is no-one to guide the participants through their performance, and that decision feels minorly exploitative.
The more serious suggestions come early in the game: books for primary school children; supporting the theatre industry; an awkwardly earnest debate about giving the money directly to a homeless person. But from around the mid-point onwards, egged on by the Ringleader, the focus turns to coming up with consciously kooky and quirky ideas. The strongest feeling in the room seems to be that the goal should be to do something memorable, something entertaining, to make this night the one to remember. It becomes a game in which a group of ordinary people are trying to Have an Experience.
A Young Man in Black rises from the audience, slaps a crisp twenty on the table, and accuses the Ringleader of being a plant.
The Ringleader points a quivering finger at the man in the purple hoodie. “He was here last night!” she cries. “Somebody won a washing machine! He’ll tell you! I can’t let that happen again!”
A Lady in Green emerges from the darkness, waving a second note. “Stop limiting yourselves!” she implores the Players. “Give the money to Leonard Blavatnik, the richest man in England! Double it, triple it!” And then she’s gone.
Time is running out. There are 13 minutes on the clock. Tempers are rising. The Game descends into chaos and faff: spin the bottle, phone a friend.
Then, with 5 minutes to spare, a teenage girl from the ranks of the Silent Witnesses pipes up. She has an idea: her cousin’s birthday party. It’ll do. The Players pass round the contract to sign.
The Game is over. The decision was unanimous, but it arose from the necessity of doing something before 00:00, rather than enthusiastic consent, and the mood is more deflated than triumphant. This feels somehow inevitable. That’s how collective decision-making tends to go: fraught, fractious, riddled with compromise. What can we do together that we cannot do apart? Less, under these circumstances.
When Red and Yellow review the contract, one name is missing. In the haste of the final moments, Teenage Girl forgot to sign her own name. And so, in fact, the money rolls over. Gasps of shock and horror – but also, overridingly for me, a sense of further disappointment, of a wholly unsatisfying narrative.
On the night I saw The Money, there was a sense in the room that the evening would be ‘worth it’ only if something exciting occurred. The key ‘value’ was entertainment, not monetary. But the responsibility for making something interesting happen fell to the audience and the participants, and the surrounding apparatus – the grand setting, the cash prize, and grandiose wording of The Rules – weren’t enough to enable it. It’s not a game I’d pay to play.
The Money is on at London County Hall until 18th July 2021. More info and tickets here.