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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hampstead Theatre   Autumn 2016

A quick lesson in economic history: in the early 1970s a booming world economy and low interest rates encouraged major banks to aggressively market multimillion dollar loans to poor countries, particularly in Latin America. 

But this was the decade of the rise of OPEC and the ten-fold increase in oil prices, which led in predictable order to inflation, higher interest rates and the inability of the borrower nations to pay their ballooning debts. 

In 1982 Mexico defaulted on its debt, with other countries lining up to follow. Less to help them than to save their own banks from collapse, richer countries had to bail out the bankrupt nations, making emergency loans and brokering write-offs. 

(If any of this reminds you of the banking crisis of 2008 or the bailout of Greece, it should. Nobody ever learns anything.) 

That succinct summary of the story comes from an excellent one-page note in the programme to Beth Steel's new play Labyrinth. And the play itself doesn't add a single thing.

Steel's play belongs to the small genre of drama-as-textbook, its sole purpose being to tell us what happened. 

It is possible for the genre to also make for living, entertaining theatre consider Rupert Goold's production of Lucy Prebble's ENRON, or for that matter Shaw's St Joan but the odds are against it, and Beth Steel falls into the trap of just having her characters tell each other what that one-page programme note tells us. 

To carry this information Steel relies on a dreadful cliche the ambitious but innocent young bank loan officer who learns fast and gets corrupted fast, pushing money at governments, sexing up reports to bank superiors, and then going back to lend more money, all in the name of his commission.

Played by Sean Delaney as an eager puppy dog at the start and a seasoned coke-sniffing cynic by the end, he never transcends stereotype or comes alive as a character. But then neither does anyone else. 

His fellow bank employees are interchangeable Princes of the City in identical Armani suits, and the generic quality of the various South American finance ministers is underlined by having them all played by the same actor. 

This is the sort of play in which people stand or sit around telling each other things they already know and lecturing each other in elementary economics, just so we'll get to hear it. But you can get it all from that programme note.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Labyrinth - Hampstead Theatre 2016

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