Some art is universal, some is completely a product of its time. Nicholas Pierpan’s You Can Still Make a Killing could not have been written before the recession made us all aware of the extent to which finance governs our lives – not even in the last recession, when banks were not held so greatly responsible by the public. Pierpan’s play is an unusual new take on a familiar topic and it is interesting to see something dealing with the real lives of the men held accountable for the crash, as well as an examination of what drives them. Unfortunately, while the characters are the thing that make this play so unusual and worthwhile, they are also difficult to connect with and largely unsympathetic. Obviously this is the point – but it still makes Pierpan’s play a difficult watch.
When Lehman Brothers collapses, leaving Edward without a job, the next one isn’t as easy to come by as he might have hoped. He and his family are forced to deal with the realities of not having a bottomless income: selling their house, moving away from their friends to outer London, budgeting. But when he realises he is unable to keep up the payments on his children’s school, the thought of their having the kind of childhood that he had, a childhood without opportunities, drives him on to desperate measures. The whole thing feels like a quiet sort of odyssey about the greed and pride of the modern world, told through the most greed- and pride-filled microcosm of them all: the world of high finance.
It’s hard not to admire the scope of what they’re doing here. Matthew Dunster’s slick production, with its well-rehearsed scene changes, copes well with a weighty and very intelligent script, and helps its audience keep up with the realities behind the jargon. The extent of Pierpan’s technical research must really be something to marvel at. The whole thing feels so legitimate, in fact, that it’s like really seeing inside this world for the first time in one’s life. Though if anyone can explain Dunster’s preoccupation with Bob Dylan, whose music is used throughout the production, I’d be very grateful, as it seemed fairly inexplicable at the time – answers on a postcard please.
As Edward, the play’s central character, Tim Delap seems at first good, and by the end fairly magnificent – which is lucky, as the show really does rest on his shoulders. Ben Lee is also excellent as Edward’s slimy colleague and so-called friend, Jack, whose meteoric rise acts as a contrast to Edward’s sudden fall, and William Mannering deserves a mention for the bags of humour and heart he brings to a minor role. In fact, the acting is generally strong all-round, though does feel slightly under-rehearsed in some quarters. Elexi Walker, for instance, while marvellous fun to watch, had difficulty with her American accent and seemed unable to get through a scene without tripping over several of her lines. It doesn’t exactly spoil things – and she is, except for this, great – but second-hand nervousness for any actor who looks like they’re struggling is always distracting.
The play is let down a little by an over-long first half in which we are shown far too much. With a strong editorial hand, we could easily have lost half an hour from this section and not missed it, and there are certainly better ways to suggest the passage of time in theatre than by showing us everything. The other main problem is that, at times, it is hard to really believe in the characters’ desperation. Edward and Fen are struggling to make ends meet, but there is never one single suggestion that Fen might get a job, even as a joke. Her slow realisation that other people ‘do’ things and have experiences outside her comprehension is nicely played by Kellie Bright, but this makes the fact that she is calmly unemployed with two school-age children, struggling for money, all the stranger. Though they end with steely resolve, Edward and Jack’s wives are largely played for laughs throughout, which provides light relief but feels like a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, the play’s second half is miles better and more economical, and the introduction of Edward’s moral quandary – how desperate is he, exactly, to regain his old life? – gives the piece real direction that drives it on to a chilling finish. You certainly leave moved and startled and all the wiser, and like much art created out of a specific climate, glad that you have seen something so important – though perhaps uncertain of the extent to which you have actually enjoyed it.
You Can Still Make a Killing can be seen at the Southwark Playhouse until 3 November. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Robert Workman.