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Labyrinth review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘ambitious but over-familiar’

Martin McDougall and Sean Delaney in Labyrinth at Hampstead Theatre. Martin McDougall and Sean Delaney in Labyrinth at Hampstead Theatre.

Beth Steel’s 2014 play Wonderland, a solid piece about the 1980s miners’ strike, netted her the Most Promising New Playwright prize at the Evening Standard Awards. But it wouldn’t be unfair or unkind to say that the Hampstead Theatre production was mostly memorable for the way it reconfigured the space, introducing working lifts and a complex two-level set, along with a whiff of the pits.

Steel’s new play, Labyrinth, set during the Latin American financial crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, is bold in scope, incredibly well-researched and manages to explain a lot of complex information in an effective way, but, as with Wonderland, it lacks a distinctive dramatic voice.

Sean Delaney’s John is a fairly green but highly ambitious young banker. While he doesn’t have his peers’ Ivy League education and his father is a small time fraudster who’s spent time inside, he’s hungry and willing to work as hard as it takes to get to where he wants to go – Steel shows the appeal of the world he’s entering and the Mephistophelian pact he’s signing, the unreal sums of money, the cocaine rush, all these young men on a power trip, oblivious to the consequences.

Labyrinth feels a like a slightly awkward fusion of the Wolf of Wall Street and Rupert Goold’s production of Lucy Prebble’s Enron (right down to the men in suits wearing animal masks) written by someone who’s read The Shock Doctrine. This sense of the filmic and the familiar is initially appealing but it becomes increasingly frustrating. Anna Ledwich’s production doesn’t have a theatrical language of its own, though it does become more inventive when John’s world – and his sanity – starts to deteriorate. There are dips into black, nightmare flashes, and a Day of the Dead finale that’s the opposite of subtle but works well in context.

While the design isn’t as transformative as that of Wonderland, Andrew D Edwards’ set is still very dominant. Staged in traverse, a rectangular playing space has been erected in the middle of the theatre: a box of black marble and flashing neon lights.

Delaney does a decent job of making John an engaging and relatively sympathetic presence despite him being more of an every-guy figure rather than a fully-formed character. Tom Weston-Jones, as Charlie, the man who inducts John into this world where “money has never been so cheap,” has a suitably obnoxious swagger but he’s oddly muted at times and some of his lines get lost in the box. On more than one occasion, in fact, this feels like a production that’s fighting its design rather than working in harmony with it.

Though Labyrinth does feel derivative at times, it’s a pleasure to see a play that’s unafraid of density, that unpacks complex subjects – the South American bailouts and their consequences, the role of the IMF in all this – and lays them out in way that’s digestible, without spoon-feeding its audience. It’s an angry play too, showing how those at the top will always come out clean while the cycle repeats itself.

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Beth Steel's ambitious, well-researched, if over-familiar, exploaration of the Latin American financial crisis of the 1970s