On the weekend that the UK Labour Party has re-elected a leader committed to borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds, Beth Steel’s new play sends shivers down the spine. Mr Corbyn, Swiss Cottage is only a short distance from Islington North and you should even be able to find a seat on the tube, because you need to get over here right away! Steel applies the same even-handed analytical approach that she used to bisect the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike in her play Wonderland, seen here a couple of years ago, as she investigates the world of international banking, The specific subject is the excessive lending by American banks in the late 1970s/early 1980s, culminating in the Mexico default crisis of 1982, but she leaves us in no doubt that she always has one eye on the banking collapse of 2008 and the ongoing saga of Greek debt.
Anna Ledwich’s production is slick and finely-tuned. Using traverse staging, she does not quite stretch Hampstead’s capabilities to the extent of the last production here, but multiple entrances and exits and labyrinthine patterns on all sides of Andrew D Edwards’ set still impress. Sean Delaney is completely convincing as John, the young rookie sucked into the wheeler-dealing and becoming intoxicated by the power games and the trappings of success. Yes, this is an over-familiar storyline, which makes it the play’s biggest disappointment. The only times when Steel brings in human drama are in scenes involving John’s father, who had served time for petty confidence tricks, but even this is to make a strong point about the inconsistency of law enforcement in dealing with different kinds of financial misdeeds.
It is not easy to engage with Steel’s writing on an emotional level, but her presentation of factual data is enthrallingly lucid and her conclusion is chilling. She tells us that, whenever collusion between international banks and governments gets out of hand, the bankers (well most of them) and the politicians will survive, but it will be ordinary folk at the bottom of the social ladder who will have to pay the price.
Performance date: 22 September 2016