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Review: Enron – The Lowry

Joan Davies on the stage version of the world’s biggest corporate cock-up

Published on October 22nd 2010.


Review: Enron – The Lowry

Enron, you may remember, was a now infamous American energy company which collapsed in 2001.

Its executives ended up in jail, 22,000 people lost their jobs and many more lost their savings. It was thought to be a one-off. Now we know better.

Enron, the touring production of Lucy Prebble’s successful play, which arrived at the Lowry this week, charts the company’s rise and, more importantly, fall.

The play was a hit last year at Chichester Theatre and London’s Royal Court, but flopped on transition to Broadway. Could it find a more appreciative audience in Salford, where The Lowry has certainly acquired a solid reputation for good drama on tour, both traditional and modern?

Enron didn’t collapse through producing energy. It collapsed because it engaged in wholesale markets and then created its own derivatives markets in energy. It posted profits based on hypothetical future profits, hid losses in self-created ‘independent’ companies, and convinced financiers and analysts that it was a model of creative business practice worth investing in.

This is a tale of flawed individuals with great self-belief and a damaged system that went on to repeat its errors. Prebble’s writing and Rupert Goold’s direction are brilliantly successful in explaining complex financial instruments with both superb clarity and dramatic tension, taking you almost on a journey into the unknown, an exciting fantasy world that you cannot quite believe is real.

With a 20-strong cast including three mice - blind of course - dinosaur ‘raptors’ in the basement to swallow the debt, and singing and dancing analysts and traders, the approach is hardly naturalistic. The fantasy continues: a financial fantasy built on imagination, greed and a belief in the power of money and numbers.

The main protagonists are Ken Lay [Clive Francis], founder of the firm, Jeffrey Skilling [Corey Johnson], eventually chief executive, Andy Fastow [Paul Chahidi] chief financial officer, and female executive Claudia Roe [Sara Stewart] who is derided for wanting to build a power plant in India rather than rely entirely on trading what others produce. Why bother with construction complications when, as in California, the company can manipulate the deregulated markets, force power failures and so force up prices to its trading advantage?

Chahidi gives the strongest performance and the drama is effective when he’s on stage. He’s also the most likeable character, eager to please, hiding from the bullying excesses of the traders, and increasingly excited by his inventive power. Chahidi conveys that excitement with an almost child-like innocence and wonder at his own power and success.

Francis, Johnson and Stewart portray cold characters whose occasional attempts at human contact and emotion are merely islands in their passion for wealth and power.

Designer Anthony Ward’s monochrome and red set creates a soulless back-drop of modernity on which projections of the familiar - the election of George W, Clinton’s sex denial, and the now iconic trading screens with story-telling colour changes - root the action in reality.

Costume, song and dance build the fantasy. Mark Henderson’s lighting, a consistent theme with changing colour and placement, mirrors the changing moods and perception. The whole production is very modern, very stylised, very fast-paced. It’s set to become a classic, for finance students as well as theatre-lovers.

Yet at times the story of ‘the smartest guys in the room’ seems a little lost. It is difficult to empathise with most of the characters. Perhaps it would have played better in the intimacy of the smaller Quays Theatre rather than to the vast Lyric auditorium. On occasion, accents triumph over diction: at others, words are lost to music or sound effects, particularly during the scene relating to 9/11.

Consequently I’m still not sure what point was being made while images of the burning towers were projected. Unsettling. The singing analysts are spot-on with their harmonies, but the use of light sabres by the dancing traders exposes weaker co-ordination.

But there should be more laughter - uncomfortable knowing laughter - and we should have some insight into what drives these men who surely must have known that the house of cards they founded couldn’t last for ever.

Enron runs at The Lyric Theatre, Salford Quays until Saturday 23rd October

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