Crash; RUN; Down and Out in Paris and London

Fest's Lead Critic, Matt Trueman reviews – Crash: 2 stars | RUN: 3 stars | Down & Out in Paris and London: 3 stars

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Published 08 Aug 2015

Are we over the idea of bankers as baddies yet? Just maybe, thank god. A bit. Half and half. Ish.

Andy Duffy’s monologue Crash offers a rounded portrait of a hedge fund manager: tough, self-assured, unshowy, anxious, possessive. To what end, however, it’s never quite clear.

Jamie Michie’s trader sits on a slick office chair, its metal frame glinting in the stage lights. He stares out at us, tugs at his crisp white collar and rolls his head on his neck. His eyes never settle. He’s restless, twitchy, not quite in control. This is a man in shock. Behind him, the floor rears up like a tidal wave.

A year before Lehman Brothers went down, he lost his wife in a car accident. Within weeks, he was back at his desk, monitoring the markets. He starts meditating with a spiritual guide who insists that we’re responsible for everything that happens to us, then meets someone else, a bookseller called Kate, and, months later, he’s set up his own hedge fund, investing more than a million – a chunk of it his own.

Duffy resists the idea that we can blame the bankers. There is, he suggests, a difference between responsibility and culpability. You can cause your own murder, for example, but the murderer’s still to blame. Likewise, the financial sector might not be entirely liable for the financial crash it forged. What happened was essentially unavoidable: barely perceptible, let alone predictable. The crash was, in a sense, inevitable.

Throughout the piece there’s a sense of something impending. The trader keeps catching things out of the corner of his eye. You picture his car crash – something coming out of nowhere, unseen until it’s too late. The same goes for the markets, and the same goes for Kate, who’s friendly—too friendly, perhaps—with her boss Gerald. Can you cause something that happens to you? Can you be blamed for not spotting the signs?

These are strong, slippery questions, but they’re largely clouded by a text that doesn’t entirely signal its intentions. Duffy’s writing—so many single sentences swimming in silence—can be heavy and hesitant, and Emma Callander’s production gets bogged down with the regret and grief of a man picking over the bones of his life, trying to make sense of where things went wrong.

If this is what traders turn into, who’d be a banker? Graduate company Engineer Theatre ask exactly that in RUN, following four interns vying for jobs at a top investment bank over a 10-week trial. Between scenes they stretch and flex like sprinters on the starting line. Make no mistake, they’re not colleagues, but competitors. Last one standing gets the contract.

RUN’s a character piece. There’s Lawrence (Al Jarrett), the public school prat with a tailored suit and an uncle in-house; Ana (Gabriella Margulies), a flinty, unscrupulous Bosnian; gentle, ethical, Northern nice guy Tim (Joseph Sentance) and Caroline (Charlotte Watson), socially anxious, provincial and driven.

We see snapshots of their summer’s work: inductions and nightclubs, deadlines and cock-ups. It tends to retreat into standard workplace comedy, rather than really refining its point and, as such, it’s largely generic.

Anyone familiar with the 'milk round' will already have a sense of this internship culture: long hours, menial tasks and institutional hierarchies. In 2013, a Bank of America intern died after working 72 hours straight, desperate to impress. RUN never moves beyond knee-jerk opposition or tries to understand the job’s (or the salary’s) appeal. Why do these twentysomethings want to become bankers? Why does the job prove so seductive and what’s the impact on a wider scale?

Because wealth and poverty are relative. They exist cheek by jowl, as George Orwell made clear in Down and Out in Paris and London, his autobiographical account of life below the breadline in both cities. After living on less than eight francs a day, Orwell—or Eric Blair as he was then—took a backbreaking job in a restaurant kitchen, dishing up dinners that cost more than his day’s pay.

The stroke of genius, here, is to meld Orwell’s memoir with Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee’s 2003 book Hard Work, which documents her stint in social housing, working minimum wage jobs. Both accounts gain currency against the backdrop of recession and benefit cuts.

The sum total is a galling account of daily life in poverty – a life that’s too easily ignored, but one that never entirely disappears. “They have been here forever,” says Orwell, of those grinding out a day-to-day existence, where simply surviving, earning just enough to eat, takes all one’s time and energy. Plus, the poor pay more, exploited for their desperation. It’s a message echoed by the form, as Orwell walks out of one door and Toynbee walks straight in a whole century later.

Byrne’s staging—co-directed with Kate Stanley—is incredibly fleet of foot, whipping between scenes with supreme efficiency. If anything, it’s too speedy, and dashing to cram two full-length books into a single hour means skimming details in the process. It describes poverty, without letting you see or feel it and never pauses in self-reflection. What, for example, are the ethics of middle-class writers slumming it for their next bestseller?

Or, indeed, the ethics of playing a piece about extreme poverty in a festival like the Fringe, where tickets go for well over Toynbee and Orwell’s daily budget. That rather sticks in the craw – almost enough to make you wonder whether our blind eyes make us every bit as bad as the bankers.