As published on EDGE on July 10, 2013.
Champagne bottles hang upside down, organized in the shapes of chandeliers, phone cords dangling like streamers. One chair with a profound back sits under a ticker tape. Mumbled news clips discuss the financial market. Suddenly the stage fills with well-dressed traders, grabbing the phones off the champagne chandeliers and screaming towards the audience: “4 for 10. 4 for 10. Are you looking at me? 4 for 10!”
Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money” at Atlantic Stage 2 recounts the financial climate in London in the late 80s post Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang, in which deregulation led to increased opportunity within the financial sector. The sudden suicide or potential murder of Jake Todd, a well-connected banker played by Mathew Nakitare, creates peril for the takeover of Albion, a historical, British manufacturer, providing a platform for political debate as to big banks versus local business.
Scilla Todd, Jake’s sister who is played by Tara Giordano, seeks to find the murderer of her brother, using his address book to hunt down his enemies. But, her goals change as she realizes how much profit she could make by collecting her brother’s client fees post-mortem, as the Big Bang abolished fixed commission charges. Her thirst for revenge is overpowered by her shock that her brother would not share in the spoils of his semi-legal, financial activity.
Scilla is one example of every character’s prioritization of wealth as the ultimate thrill and achievement. The satire has no moral qualms, as driven characters fight for wealth. During this time of easy money, greed is not seen as a negative. For example, the media positions Billy Corman, played by Alex Draper, as an evil villain seeking the spoils of overtaking Albion.
To combat this perception, his PR executive, played by Dolcie Starr, advises him to downplay ugly greedy, but play up sexy greedy. In other words, a scandal with a prostitute to portray himself as a player to which the everyday man can aspire and as a highbrow, investing in the art to juxtapose the simplicity of Albion’s current management. The only unhappy characters are those no longer able to trade, mainly the ’old money’ crowd that has been replaced with the new trading floor titans.
“Yack, wack, what’s his name? Zach,” Merrisson, an old school banker played by Sten Dykes, exclaims in distaste of the new banker set. The Big Bang new regulations not only benefitted the financial sector as a whole, but also opened the doors of the well-coiffed, old money Oxbridge dominance to gaudy, thick-accented lower class that used their street smarts to thrive on the trading floor.
The clash of the tweed-on-the-weekend class with the new ill-mannered, scrappy market entrants provides an additional layer of comedy. For example, Scilla visits her father with such a character. Before exchanging greetings, the friend asks the square footage of the home, offers to buy it, and daydreams out loud of his future Rottweiler that would roam the estate.
The new lack of regulation also leads to a reliance on relationships to ensure trust within business dealings. Prior to his death, Jake acted as a go-between, aiding in the fundraising process for the buyout of Albion. Everyone trusts Jake’s contacts, although they, as all characters, should not be trusted due to their primary incentive of obtaining more money at any cost. For example, Jacinta Condor, a Peruvian businesswoman, in exchange for a guarantee to purchase Albion shares requests funds for ’hospitals in Peru’, but really her own pockets.
The main theme Caryl Churchill focuses on is not that being pro-business is bad, but that it is individuals who are bad. Every character is greedy and passionately driven by a want for more wealth. The new regulations aided the financial sector in exchange for campaign funds. Churchill explores the culture of this historic period through on-point ’trade language’ and witty rhyming dialog.
The characters effectively use a relatively simple set. The audience feels like insiders as the actors break the fourth wall to provide private anecdotes. But, in time with the financial environment, the dialogs are often very fast with overlapping speakers, making it difficult to follow.
Furthermore, many of the actors play multiple characters. Some, such as Alex Draper, skillfully differentiate their roles, while others less clearly enact a new role. Acts end with a breakout in songs that are quirky, but hard to understand.
This play is ideal for those interested in the financial culture and characters that breed booms and busts. The topics are timely, especially the use of debt as a form of control, in the 80s used by the IMF and today by stronger European countries over their less economically competitive brethren.