Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Review: Enron

Premiered this summer in Chichester and now making the move to Sloane Square's Royal Court, Lucy Prebble's second play Enron has achieved a quite astonishing level of success. Bolstered by four- and five-star reviews earlier this year, the entire run at the Royal Court sold out before opening and a West-End transfer has already been announced. Fortunately, the play lived up to its billing and provided a highly entertaining and educational evening.

Telling the story of Enron, a much-feted energy corporation whose surprise collapse in 2001 leaving billions of dollars of debt, Prebble has done a fantastic job in making the subject of financial manoeuvring very accessible and engaging, whilst never patronising her audience, and her work is given extra strength due to the current state of the economy and our subsequent realisation that this was not an isolated incident as first believed.

One of the main strengths of this play is its unerring plausibility, and this is perfectly exemplified by the well-drawn characters and the performances of each of the leads. There are no pantomime villains here, no evil chuckling over bags of swag, but rather 3 businessmen making increasingly bad decisions. Tim Pigott-Smith as Enron's wily founder Ken Lay is full of backslapping southern bonhomie which belies his ruthlessness and complicity as the share price soars; Tom Goodman-Hill was highly impressive as the financial officer Andy Fastow whose inventive schemes to hide the debts are brilliantly explained in a key scene with a Russian doll-like collection of boxes; and finally Samuel West is just superb as Jeffrey Skilling, the chairman who led Enron on its merry dance. We follow him on his tumultuous journey from the overweight, gauche Harvard ingenue on his arrival, through his ruthless climb to the presidency (shafting his rival, the ever-excellent Amanda Drew), losing weight and morals as he rises to the top and then desperately trying to maintain the untenable position through ever-increasingly outlandish schemes. West imbues his performance with enough humanity so that one does end up sympathising somewhat with him, yet all-the-while remaining a thoroughly unlikeable chap.

The rest of the company also deserve a mention though, as they work extremely hard and do an excellent job: singing, dancing, playing at dinosaurs, fighting with lightsabres, all and more are carried out with aplomb and fantastic energy, the scene changes in particular were admirably swift.

Rupert Goold's direction here, particularly in the first half, is simply dazzling. Bringing together elements of song, movement and video, and weaving in highly effective lighting, sound design and a visually arresting set, the combined effect is often breathtaking. There's a strong vein of dark comedy which highlights the absurdity of what Enron was able to get away with, and whilst the energy of the play subsides slightly in the second half with the shift to a more traditional story-telling and less of the Gooldisms, the sheer quality of the acting carries it through.

This is a great play, which at any other time would have been well-received anyway due to the inventiveness of the direction and clarity in demystifying the murky pool of financial nefariousness, but its timing now and the light it sheds on the reasons for the state of the world today elevates it to outstanding. Thought-provoking and educational, but above all, highly educational: do not miss!

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