[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]
Steve Thompson is one of the few people who must be thanking God for the recession. His new play Roaring Trade, set in the offices of a London investment bank, purports to “expose just how far people go for the highest-risk jobs in the City”. Sadly, this hint of topicality is largely illusory. The play is essentially recession-free, pre-crunch and would probably have felt just as timely after the collapse of Barings in 1995 as it does now. In fact, the piece boils down to a simple morality tale where people who behave unpleasantly to other people eventually get their comeuppance, complete with poignant final scene showing us exactly what the author thinks is really important in life.
And this is the problem. Throughout the production, the distaste of both playwright and director for the values of the Square Mile is so pronounced that at no point is any character allowed to seem impressive or laudable. At all times there is a drive to undermine whatever characters are doing with this insistent message that having “feelings” and “being nice” is preferable to being tough and making money. Conversely, the casting here feels all wrong in the opposite direction. Almost every single actor on stage just comes across as a bit too “nice” for the characters they are supposed to be played. Despite being given all sorts of tough-talking lines, you don’t for a minute believe any of the cast are actually “like that”.
Andrew Scott as chippy sort-of cockney Donny looks like a kicked puppy, and no amount of Johnny Rotten-sounding sneering can disguise it. Similarly, Christian Roe’s posh new boy, nicknamed Spoon (as in silver), just doesn’t project the arrogance, assurance and natural condescension of the public school banker. Their older colleague PJ similarly fails to convince as someone who owns a seven bedroom house in Hampstead, while Sandy, PJ’s wife, certainly doesn’t look like someone who’s gotten used to the finer things in life. I’m all for non-naturalism in theatre, but if you’re going to do realism, you should go all the way and this production doesn’t. Nothing in Kandis Cook’s set looks expensive enough, and it needs to. The point of this world is money, visible wealth. It should look intimidating to those who don’t have it. Where are the expensive haircuts, expensive personal grooming and the expensive food?
That said, there are some good lines and some nice moments of tension, not to mention a stunningly good performance from 13-year-old Jack O’Connor as Donny’s son Sean. Indeed, perhaps the play’s best scene is that in which Donny sits in McDonald’s with Sean and explains to him how “short selling” works. Sure it’s one of those scenes that playwrights have to provide so that the audience can follow the financial transactions on which the plot hinges, but here the way it subverts the traditional father-son relationship with Donny’s relentlessly cynical advice adds a believable, likeable texture that is so missing elsewhere.
In the coming year theatres will no doubt be inundated by countless plays purporting to offer scathing critiques of the credit crunch, sub-prime mortgage fiascos and the ever-deepening recession, hopefully they’ll be funnier, sharper and will contain less finger-wagging and cheap point-scoring than Roaring Trade.