Hampstead Theatre, London – until 3 March 2018
The most arresting new character I’ve met this year is the magnificent Hayley Atwell as Jenny; star of a New York private equity investment firm. Jenny is a high-concept calculating machine-cum-psychopath, as staccato in her statements as the click of her spike heels. She deploys a superb blank does-not-compute’ stare when confronted with some concept like “relating to people”.
Even her ruthless boss Rick (Aidan McArdle) is a bit more capable of worrying what people think. Slumped depressedly by his glass desk with his middle suit button defiantly and uncomfortably done up, he is bothered that the firm’s latest manoeuvre laid hundreds of workers off to turn a quick profit, and got exposed in the New York Times just as he was throwing a million-dollar engagement party. Jenny scorns such weakness.
“Do we work in-” she drips with scorn at the words – “public relations? Anyway, who takes The New York Times seriously?”
“The entire world” replies a colleague.
“I mean in OUR world!’ says Jenny.
Sarah Burgess’ slyly wicked comedy – she’s a rising US writer – is indeed a porthole into a murky parallel world whose doings, though legal, make McMafia look like Little Women. At least in that, the Russian tribes drip with tearful family loyalty even when commissioning car-bombs. Here, the privateers are driven entirely by the logic of percentage profit: they are piratical asset strippers, experts of the forked tongue and slippery promise. Newcomers will give three minutes to the programme’s quick guide to leveraged buyouts, LPs, debt-to-capital ratios and the vital “Dry Powder” which a fund holds ready for a quick buy-in ; but in fact with skilful clarity Burgess makes the action clear from the start.
Rick is planning to invest heavily in a luggage manufacturer in California, urged by Seth (Tom Riley) who has been enthused by its ideas about expanding into online bespoke suitcases for middle-management business travellers “No one has harnessed that force”. Jenny sets her team of analysts (one of whom ends up in hospital, overdosed on wake-up pills) to work out that the way to the best fast profits is to close down the Sacramento factory , manufacture cheaply in Bangladesh for an emerging Chinese middle-class market, and rapidly sell on. Rick is still worried that their investors – secretive high net worth individuals and any pension fund with a conscience – will hate the loss of American jobs. Seth agrees. “If you make too many people too mad, they can change things” nervously citing the French Revolution. From Jenny drips icy staccato incomprehension .
Scenes change: it is all elegantly set in front of revolving mirrors reflecting either cold corporate offices ,a warmer California or finally Hong Kong. We meet Jeff the suitcase CEO (Joseph Balderama), enthusing Seth and only slowly suspecting the harsher intentions of Rick and Jenny. The plot thickens, with panic for the fund, an unsavoury rescue, a deal, and from Aidan McArdle the most chilling snorted laugh I have heard onstage for years.
It is barkingly funny, played with quartet precision under Anna Ledwich’s direction, and has at its heart not some jejune fury at “fatcats” but a serious observation: it is about the distinction between the warm breath of business – creating objects, services, value – and the icy mathematical chill of those who finance it. The hard-edged contemptuous purity of Jenny will haunt me for days. Not that she’ll care. As she says to Seth3 ‘ Allow less intelligent people to hate you. It’s their destiny, and it costs you nothing”.
A lesser writer, by the way, might have been tempted to draw the relationship between the two warring colleagues as Benedick and Beatrice, or at least throw in a sex scene. Not this one. Just pitiless mirth and Swiftian wit.
box office 020 7722 9301 to 3 march