Roaring Trade, Soho Theatre
A Rip-roaring Success
What’s the point of having the money to buy a Van Gogh if you never have the time to enjoy it? is one question posed by this dynamic new play, written by Steve Thompson and directed by Roxana Silbert. Ironically, the question is voiced by the youngest member of the cast – primary school-aged Sean whose dad, Donny, is a cuttingly cynical bond trader. In keeping with his son’s comment, it is Sean (a wonderfully honest performance by young Jack O’Connor) who, in his directness and intuitive intelligence, clearly is the wisest of the bunch. He shows that making money doesn’t have to come at somebody else’s expense: he rips his granny off, getting her to buy his paintings, but his granny enjoys having the art and so is more than willing to cough up.
Thompson’s rigorous new play looks at the lives of bond traders, assessing the value of their often massive annual bonuses against the quality of life they achieve. In a hilariously sarcastic performance by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jess, one of the bankers, says it’s all a pissing game, a sizing up of one another’s willies.
The characters Thompson has drawn are remarkably complex, his skill being the ability to radically shift our sympathies from minute to minute depending on who is the big boy of the moment and who is the underdog. Like a Pinter play, each scene introduces a new power struggle, whether it’s based on money, trading success, contacts or a good sexual score card. While at first we may think that Jess’s trading power grows solely out of her seductiveness, by the end we realise that her ‘professional flirting’ is simply the icing on the cake – it is her brains and shrewdness that enable her to exist in this cut-throat, male-dominated world.
Donny (an enjoyably unusual performance by Andrew Scott) is the most elusive character. He is at times wholly ugly with a malicious twinkle in his beady brown eyes and slurring his words as if inebriated. At other times, he is vulnerable in his uncontrollable desire, and failure, to succeed in his trade. Christian Roe as his public school antagonist and victim, Spoon, appears squeaky clean, but his clear blue eyes and thick mass of blond hair should not blind us to his dishonest tactics.
Then there’s PJ (Nicholas Tennant) and his spoilt wife Sandy (Susan Vidler) who looks like she’s come straight out of Madame Tussaud’s. She refuses to downgrade to a more ‘ordinary’ lifestyle to ensure her husband’s happiness. PJ, on the other hand, ruddy and good-natured, wants to get a boat and sail, this ambition being the only one outside of the stuffy, oppressive, money-mad trading floor.
Thompson’s dialogue is acerbic, funny and quick – sometimes too quick (we sense he’s laughing at his own wit on occasions). But this could also be down to the production which is so gleamingly polished and fast-paced that it’s not improbable that these actors were at some point bond traders themselves. But occasional moments of silence and reflection are used effectively and, at one point, we are even treated to the sound of singing birds. Needless to say, this is not without a laptop being in view.
While in many ways Roaring Trade feels rooted in the Noughties, and more specifically in the credit crunch, it also speaks for the cold competition that can infect any individual, and appeals to us all to make a little time in our lives to live.