Serious Money

Thu 7th – Sat 16th November 2013

reviews

C Agnew

at 02:11 on 8th Nov 2013

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The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of Serious Money left me seriously divided.

The City of London during the second half of the 1980s is the setting for Caryl Churchill’s satirical play about a group of stock brokers around the time of the suicide, or potential murder, of one of their own greedy but frightened pawns. It is an intelligently written, challenging play consisting mostly of rhyming couplets.

Amongst the array of slightly overdone accents and tittering characterisations two actors stood out as giving believable, well researched and entertaining performances - Molly Hanson (playing Scilla Todd, the vulgar, single minded “English rose” with more thorns than petals) and the fantastic Craig Fuller (playing the miserably fated Jake Todd, as well as Dave, and Soat, an American bubble-gum factory owner in a fetching cowboy hat and pink jersey shirt). They carried the play through a seemingly endless stream of scene changes, some of which were smoother than others.

With a running time of 3 hours (including a 15 minute interval), Serious Money is impressively long! Nevertheless tickets cost £15 (£10 concessions) which is expensive for a theatre school production- especially one that lacked polish and professionalism as much as this one did. Whilst there were some gripping, intense dialogues and interesting board room scenes there was also the clunking of props and a tremendous amount of backstage noise which was distracting to say the least. The background music was too much at the front of my mind during the scenes in which it was used, so much so that it was hard to decipher what the actors were saying and what was going on. However these criticisms are mainly technical ones which could, as I hope they will, be rectified in subsequent performances; this was after all only opening night.

One of my major points of criticism for the production was the over-use of the projectors. They were an unnecessary distraction in so much of their use. In Scilla’s split-time café scene it was obvious what was going on from the acting. For example, when Crystal Condie’s character Jacinta Condor talked about Africa no-one in the audience needed a map to help them visualise the continent. The absolute worst moment for me, however, was when, at the end of the play in a scene which could have so easily been a highlight, pictures of each of the characters popped up on the screen whilst the actors backstage said what they were doing now that the scandal was behind them. It wouldn't have been so bad had the projector not had what each actor was saying written under their relevant photos as they read aloud! The audience should be able to tell from the acting and staging where the scene takes place; some signposting can be useful but no-one wants to feel as though they’re being led through a PowerPoint presentation.

The performance gained a much needed dose of energy and momentum after the interval. There was an improvement in performances too, notably Alice McCarthy (playing Mrs Etherington) and Crystal Condie (playing Jacinta Condor). These actors and the others previously mentioned stood out not primarily due to their characterisation but rather because of their grappling of the verse. Craig Fuller in particular mastered the verse brilliantly, capturing the satire in the text and consequently receiving the majority of the audience’s laughs.

It wasn’t a clean performance. It was messy, but then isn’t the stock market also a messy world, driven by greed and impulse? If the performance did succeed it did so through performances oozing with adrenaline which seeped over into the relentless world of the trade floor, bringing it to life. However, whether or not it showed the paradox the playwright intended to create between “it being an attractive world and a dangerous one” is more debatable.

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Anwen Jones

at 18:21 on 15th Nov 2013

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A play about money markets, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School has definitely decided to do something different by choosing ‘Serious Money’ for its opening performance of the season. Combining the lingo of the financial world with implicit rhyming couplets, this show is certainly a hybrid in terms of dramatic pieces, but the risk posed by taking on as difficult a topic as the stock market was one worth taking. Handled with fluidity, understanding and flair, the young company sucked their audience into the world of ‘money, money money’, achieving the seemingly impossible task of making free markets and euro bonds entertaining.

Staged in the incredible Circomedia venue, I found myself looking at a four-sided stage, a square performance space surrounded by rows of seats and four impressive drop-down screens covered in marketing symbols and numbers – a simplistic but very effective set, accurately depicting the trading floor. The following action only added to this image as men and women, dressed up in stern business suits, cascaded onto the floor, shouting abrasively to one another and keeping their eyes forever fixed on the moving numbers above them. In one word it was ‘mayhem,’ complete and utter chaos, overridden with a sense of urgency and, strangely enough, vulnerability. It is no exaggeration, it appears, that people speak of the markets as a ‘dog eat dog’ world. The vibrancy and energy displayed by the entire cast in this first scene remain evident throughout the performance, demonstrating the commitment each actor had to the piece. However, although such a crazed opening does effectively represent the atmosphere of the stock market exchange, it became a little too overbearing after a couple of minutes. Not only were the audience confused as to what exactly was going on, but it appeared to drag towards the end of the scene and I personally was waiting for a clear voice to take hold of the action on stage. In fairness, this did eventually happen, and a narrative and plot began to be established, leading the audience more gently into the confusing world of ‘junk bonds’ and ‘risk arbitrageurs’.

Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, the play tackles a potential murder, social class tensions, political corruption and a whole load of greed. However, it is not all doom and gloom, and Caryl Churchill should be applauded for creating a script which was both topically heavy as well as comically versed. The cast did well to show both sides of their acting abilities, balancing the seriousness of financial fraud with characters balanced such as Phil Dunster’s Duckett and Nicola Kavanagh’s Ms Biddulph. However, it was the performances of Craig Fuller and Wil Coban that particularly stood out for me, as both actors displayed impeccable dedication to their characters, making them believable and, in Coban’s case, enjoyably detestable. I would also mention Alice McCarthy’s performance as Mrs Etherington which, although small, was done exceptionally well, reminding me a little of a slightly posher Margaret Mountford.

All in all, the execution of the play was impeccable, with fluid scene changes, enthusiastic acting and convincing characterisation. However, the jargon-heavy script did mean that the production as a whole was sometimes difficult to follow. I think the inclusion of a glossary of terms in the show’s programme demonstrates how challenging a task it was to take on the topic of the money markets - such a tricky backdrop for a play hindered the audience’s understanding of what exactly was happening on stage. In addition, the play had a running time of just over 3 hours, which was simply too long making the financial lingo and packed plot slightly labourious by the end of the performance. However, coming away from ‘Serious Money’ I have no doubt in the talent and potential of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s cast and direction. They are professional, innovative and dedicated – I just hope that their next production doesn’t focus on anymore ‘big bangs’ and ‘market makers’ as I think the overload of economic phrases and knowledge may be too much for me to handle.

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