I wince every time our prudent Chancellor boasts about growth. Producing more goods and services does not necessarily equate to 'being better off', or more importantly, to being happier. Growth also has a significant impact on global warming and increases the pressure on natural resources, and it's often fuelled by borrowing. More people than ever are now up to their consumerist eyeballs in debt, with record numbers seeking protection from creditors by filing for bankruptcy. It's a situation which bears all the hallmarks of impending doom.
Dennis Kelly's new play 'Love and Money' (first performed in October this year at the Royal Exchange, Manchester) puts debt and the consumer society under the microscope whilst also taking a side-swipe at the modern 'world of work', and examining the way in which we view our neighbours in terms of happiness and our own well-being. A multi-dimensional play with numerous interwoven strands, it reflects the complexity of the consumerist muddle we've all merrily signed-up to in the past few decades. So it's hard to know if 'Love and Money' is best described as a play, a series of sketches, or simply scenarios which focus on these interrelated concepts. Whichever way you take it, the messages still ring out pretty loud and clear. Certainly there's a story-like thread running through the piece and the characters reappear or are referred to in different scenes, though not in all of them. Interestingly, the chronology is reversed: the ending comes first and the remainder of the play takes us backwards in time to view the build-up to the disturbing revelations disclosed at the beginning.
The play focuses on the debt-laden misery of a married couple, David and Jess. When we first meet David, however, he's conducting a romance by email. Jess is already dead and David's new French lover, Sandrine, wants to know about his wife's demise. Sandrine prises the information from David in a kind of electronic interrogation. But once the disturbing information is imparted, the emails and the romance abruptly stop.
The confessional mode is further developed when we join two bereaved parents who horrifyingly and graphically admit to the desecration of the neighbouring memorial where their daughter is buried because it's become too ornate, overshadowing their daughter's gravestone. Other scenes focus on Jess and her consumerist aspirations, and a strangely humorous conversation between a sex-obsessed man, and a girl who puts wallpaper paste in the office coffee machine, and sends out invoices with male genitalia photocopied on the reverse.
Authoritative and imaginative direction from Matthew Dunster, and an able and focused cast of six provide a stimulating concoction of wit and tragedy which keeps us engrossed even when the subject matter is unnerving, or when it shifts somewhat abruptly. Although each of the scenes is of a uniformly high standard, the best is where David is being interviewed for a job by an old college chum, Val, played with gloating superiority, perfect timing, and agile wordplay by Claudie Blakley. It's a scene powered by witty, sharp and hard-hitting dialogue. When David says "I don't want you to do me any favours", Val retorts pointedly "But I am doing you a favour". Val derides David's English degree (she has one in Business Studies, of course) and is in no doubt about just what is important to her and the rest of the world: cash. "I photosynthesise cash" she says.
Anna Fleischle's functionally ingenious set houses the props in a collection of modern-looking cupboards or lockers. As the action proceeds, fish tanks, dining tables, stairs, hospital beds and an assortment of other items magically appear as cupboard doors are opened, or have their contents removed. It's a neat solution that echoes the functionality of consumerism, whilst hinting at the 'hidden' effects of our slavish dependence on goods, money and debt.
Inventively written to turn what many will see as a dry subject into something more compelling, 'Love and Money' is a long overdue theatrical vehicle to warn us of the burdens of debt, but it also forces us to re-examine what we mean by happiness. Though it's a fine example of social commentary, my ingrained cynicism tells me that it's impact will be lightly felt, if at all, out there in the wider community. Nevertheless, it's a commendable and eminently watchable production with messages that really do matter, and is therefore well worth a visit.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "In Matthew Dunster's stylish production Love and Money offers food for uncomfortable thoughts." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Stylish production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "One of the best new plays of the year...One leaves the theatre with the exhilarating certainty that one has encountered a dramatist blessed with both rare skill and a profound understanding of the way we live now." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "Sharp, sad new play...searing direction."
Production photo by Jonathan Keenan