Review - Dry Powder starring Hayley Atwell at the Hampstead Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Hampstead Theatre is one of London's homes for new writing, whether newly commissioned from British writers or offering UK premieres for work first seen abroad, particularly from America. Last year, these included one of my favourite new plays of the year Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who went on to be named Most Promising Playwright of the year in the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for that play and An Octoroon (seen at the Orange Tree); but it also brought the more voyeuristic pleasures of Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers. Other imports from the US over recent years have included two terrific plays by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole and Good People; Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism; Gina Gionfrido's Rapture, Blister, Burn; Theresa Rebeck's Seminar; and David Mamet's Race.

Now it is offering another: Sarah Burgess's high finance (and supposedly high stakes) drama about a midtown New York private equity firm, who specialise in buying businesses that need investment, streamlining and re-organising them (like taking their manufacturing functions off-shore, out of America), asset-stripping and then re-selling them off at a higher value. Never mind the private cost of lost jobs and ruined lives; it's all about making money.

There's a kind of grim fascination in watching these operators make their moves on a Sacramento-based manufacturer of luggage, but this play feels like its full of churning surface glitter and too little depth - which may be an accurate description of its ruthless protagonists. Everyone is acting in self-interest; no one is at all likeable.

That makes spending an evening in their company not very pleasant. It's all very glossy, but empty and depressing. The writing is a bit like David Mamet, but without the spitfire jokes or delivery.

Anna Ledwich's production summonses the right nervy energy of this cut-throat world, and has respectively brittle, poised and polished performances from Hayley Atwell, Aidan McArdle and Tom Riley as the three financiers, and Joseph Balderrama as their prey, who turns out to be motivated by his own self-interest.

But the play, though it is undeniably gripping to watch, needs some asset-stripping of its own, to make it leaner and cleaner.

Dry Powder is at the Hampstead Theatre until 3rd March.

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