Hampstead Theatre, London (****)

© Manuel Harlan, the company

© Manuel Harlan, the company

Spare a thought. It can’t be easy for actresses – female actors if you’d rather. Plays – even new plays – still tend to favour the male of the species.

Take my last two outings this week – The Inn at Lydda at the Sam Wanamaker (see review) and Beth Steel’s Labyrinth – one set in Caesar’s Rome, the other the testosterone filled US banking territory. What do they have in common? Male dominated casts.

Not that Beth Steel doesn’t have a point to make. Her previous award-winning Wonderland, about the 1984 miners strike, blazed with male camaraderie and bonding. It’s as if in writing her (almost) all-male dramas, she’s emphasising male conduct in the absence of women.

© Manuel Harlan, Martin McDougall (Howard), Sean Delaney (John)

© Manuel Harlan, Martin McDougall (Howard), Sean Delaney (John)

So it is here, transporting a similar atmosphere to a cautionary tale about innocence destroyed, sucked into the labyrinth that was, is, US `adventure’ capitalism.

Steel does incorporate some female characters but they are little more than ciphers. The heart of the matter in this zesty account of bad faith and raw dealing in American banks’ relationship with Latin America in the 1980s resides emphatically with the men led by Martin McDougall’s uber-macho banker, Howard, self-made and Wild West imbued.

Then, as now and in 2008, it’s a story – already well documented – of loans built on low interest rates billowing out into national bankruptcy, first in Mexico, then spreading to Brazil, Chile, Argentina.

© Manuel Harlan, Sean Delaney (John), Philip Bird (Frank) - son and father...

© Manuel Harlan, Sean Delaney (John), Philip Bird (Frank) – son and father…

At its centre – and in a parallel moral universe – Steel sets a young greenhorn protagonist, John, ambitious, hell bent on escaping his birthright as the son of fraudulent, conman father, Frank (Philip Bird, a Jim Broadbent doppelganger, terrifically down at heel and making me think constantly about the personality said to have been ascribed to John Le Carre’s infamous père).

© Manuel Harlan, Sean Delaney as the young novice, John, learning the tricks of the trade...

© Manuel Harlan, Sean Delaney as the young novice, John, learning the tricks of the trade…

As the doomed John, Sean Delaney carries just the right degree of trust, inhibition and moral sense that makes his downfall all the more poignant in Anna Ledwich’s traverse, racy production which if sometimes too zappy nonetheless captures the greed and dizziness of men enthralled by the new frontier and opportunities opening in front of them…

Thrilling in its own way, in a theatre always keen to test its staging potential to the maximum.

Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept, 2016

Labyrinth runs at Hampstead Theatre to Oct 8, 2016

A new play by Beth Steel 


Mexican Minister/Brazilian Minister/Argentinian Minister: Joseph Balderrama
Frank: Philip Bird
John: Sean Delaney
US businessman/Treasury: Ryan Ellsworth
Rick: Eric Kofi-Abrefa
Howard: Martin McDougall
Trent/Javier: Abubakar Salim
Grace: Elena Saurel
Banker: Chris Sawalha
L B Holmes/IMF: Alexia Traverse-Healy
Charlie: Tom Weston Jones
Phil: Matt Whitchurch
Non-speaking roles performed by: James Gulliford, Luke Macleod

Director: Anna Ledwich
Designer: Andrew D Edwards
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim
Movement Director: John Ross
Company Voice and Dialect: Penny Dyer
Casting Directors: Suzanne Crowley & Gilly Poole
Assistant Director: Celine Lowenthal
Costume Supervisor: Sabrina Cuniberto

World premiere of Labyrinth, Hampstead Theatre, London, Sept 1, 2016