Canary Wharf is an unusual place. I spend a lot of time there, punching in hours in my pencil skirt in a compliance gig while I figure out how to monetise my twin loves of theatre and rich desserts. It’s steel and tall and reflective, it’s pinstripes and water features and stock prices. This is the Wharf we all see, the snazzy surface I gobbled up from the day I first arrived.
Labyrinth loves the sleek sexiness of finance. You can see it in its smooth talking bankers, its sharp American Psycho wardrobe, in the flash and bang of the dancing lights and sliding sets, the wide-eyed ingénue and the slick prick who runs the game. Labyrinth is mad for it. Like Wolf of Wall Street and Enron before it, Labyrinth glamourizes the excess of prosperity before gleefully driving the train right off the rails. It’s an age old narrative, practised and cathartic. The endless cycle of boom, bust, boom.
But stay in the Wharf a little longer and you’ll notice other things. Florists stay open late so overworked husbands can buy wilting apologies when they finally leave for home. A stationary shop sells an impressive selection of adult colouring books, for anxious, jittery traders who need to destress. Sure, the bars are sleek and the architecture futuristic enough to warrant a Star Wars cameo, but there are slices of humanity glimmering beneath the glossy surface.
Labyrinth’s frenetic pace, vacillating between deftly unpacking the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s and plunging its hero John, played by Sean Delaney (main guy) into the drug fuelled hell of his own conscience, forgets to find the humanity beneath the sheen. Like so many finance dramas before it, Labyrinth actively avoids dramatizing the victims of the crisis it depicts, but it doesn’t seem to want us to empathise with the guilty parties either. Characters are established and completely dropped off at the interval, the only true relationship, between John and his fraudster father, becomes increasingly ghostly until it’s rendered almost intangible.
The production is undeniably snappy, with fracturing drink and dream sequences intercut with blackouts and bright lights. These gimmicks are intoxicating at first, as each flash careens the audience through yet another wild and heady coke-filled night. But inevitably your eyes adjust and you start to hear the performative gears turning. The dazzle wears off and you can hear the actors shuffling, the rattling of an ultimately hollow vessel. Snazzy dream sequences, smooth marble surfaces and dazzling tricks of the light only go so far to disguise some of the clumsy fight choreography and clumsier accents. Characters are drawn in strokes a shade too bold, Delaney’s bright-eyed ingénue is just a touch too naive, Tom Weston-Jones’ Charlie, there to make hay while the sun shines, never really lets his guard down. We need something more solid behind the flash.
That’s not to say Labyrinth doesn’t have some good things going for it. The play draws obvious parallels between the Latin debt crisis and the subprime mortgage crash and European bailouts of the last decade. It’s interesting to imagine that the morbidly ambitious Charlie, 28 for most of the play, would have been 57 in 2008 when the shit hit the fan again – no doubt watching history repeat itself from the safe distance of a private yacht. The decision to tackle Mexico is timely too, and the play cannily highlights the part American greed had to play in the destruction of a nation which has become so important to the hateful narratives of Donald Trump and the alt-right. The scenes where the American bankers and IMF officials pressure Mexico into accepting austerity cast unsettling shadows on Donald Trump’s now infamous promise of a wall, and his campaign’s nightmare dystopia of an America with ‘taco trucks on every corner’.
There’s a guy in Canary Wharf Tube Station who likes to draw pictures of Minions. You’ll find the squat, bulbous, yellow creatures dotted around the station in hula skirts or lederhosen, reminding passengers to drink water, form orderly queues and report suspicious items to a member of staff. In the crush of rush hour, they’re easy enough to miss, but in the mass of grey and black and navy suits, the yellow is a sunny change of pace.
At the end of the day, Labyrinth is a savvy, smart, dynamic play with a mouthful of intelligent things to say about how money makes the world go round. It’s got sex appeal and intellect in spades. It’s got the steel and the smarts, the tall buildings, the stock prices and the heady pace and hungry roar of finance. I just wish it had a little more heart.