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The Theatreguide.London Review

Dry Powder
Hampstead Theatre   January-March 2018

It's billed as a comedy, but there are more laughs in King Lear than in this American import. 

Instead, Sarah Burgess's play is a fascinating and chilling picture of high finance at work, whose moral is that everyone at the top of the corporate ladder is a bastard and you can absolutely count on them to act like bastards. 

We're in the office of a Private Equity firm, financiers who collect investments from the super-rich to create a fund with which they buy up other companies, either to run them successfully or to strip them down, selling off assets and laying off workers for a quick profit. 

One partner has been courting a small luggage company and brings his boss a very attractive deal that would keep the acquisition intact. 

A competing partner quickly crunches the numbers to show they'll make more by firing everyone, moving manufacture to Bangladesh and essentially bribing the luggage company boss to go along and shaft his workers.

Solely because he's been getting some bad press for a recent fire-them-all takeover, the PE boss is open to the more humane alternative, and the play becomes what we might call a battle for his soul (and later the luggage boss's) if we could ever fully believe that he has one. 

All this is fascinating, as we watch the kinds of argument and rationalisations used by people at least some of whom try to convince themselves they're human. And it is increasingly chilling as we watch them repeatedly fail in that endeavour. 

Tom Riley as the guy who found the deal, Aidan McArdle as his boss and Joseph Balderrama as the luggage man all skilfully keep us on edge with tantalising hints that there might be an actual human being in there somewhere. 

But acting honours go to Hayley Atwell as the number-cruncher who quite simply and almost innocently cannot see any human or humane issues in what is to her never anything other than a clear choice between lots of money and lots more money. 

By reconfiguring the Hampstead so we almost surround the action on a deep thrust stage, director Anna Ledwich and designer Andrew D. Edwards create an almost documentary fly-on-the-wall feeling that increases our sense of peeping behind the facade to discover how things really work. 

The ethos of these characters, that it is the job – nay, the moral obligation – of the rich to become richer, has very strong echoes of Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street ('Greed is good'). 

Dry Powder assures us that raw greed may be a little better disguised these days, but when decisions have to be made you can still rely on the bastards to be bastards.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dry Powder - Hampstead  Theatre 2018

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