Dry Powder review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘Hayley Atwell stars in a so-so satire’

Tom Riley, Aidan McArdle, Hayley Atwell and Joseph Balderrama in Dry Powder at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Tom Riley, Aidan McArdle, Hayley Atwell and Joseph Balderrama in Dry Powder at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Since starring in 2013’s The Pride, Hayley Atwell has become one of the best things about the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Agent Peggy Carter. She also made a fascinating Margaret Schlegel in the BBC’s recent adaptation of EM Forster’s Howards End. It’s a shame, then, that her return to the stage should be this so-so satire on the amoral world of high finance.

Atwell plays Jenny opposite Tom Riley’s Seth. They are partners at a New York private equity firm reeling from a PR disaster caused by their boss, Rick, throwing an obscenely lavish engagement party (featuring an elephant) on the same day that his company instigated mass layoffs at a national grocery store chain.

Seth has a plan: a media-friendly ‘America first’ investment, at a knockdown price, in a company that produces American-made, bespoke suitcases. But Jenny is suspicious about how cheap the deal is. She wants to strip the company down to the bone financially, at whatever cost to its employees.

Although Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder debuted at New York’s Public Theatre in March 2016, before we entered the Trumpian Twilight Zone, the idea of cynically exploiting nationalism as part of a reputation management exercise feels sadly relevant today.

Anna Ledwich’s production, while amusing, is brittle. Perhaps the most slippery, and interesting, character is Seth. A perfectly coiffed Riley nicely undercuts his character’s outrage at Jenny’s plans with an attention-seeking swagger and preening narcissism. He’s blinded by himself, throwing on the garb of ‘man of the people’ because he’s his own sycophantic audience.

Jenny could just have dropped out of space, completely baffled by simple Earth concepts like helping at a homeless shelter. She’s a profit-calculating machine. Atwell catches her bluntness with comic timing, but she has little to work with. Jenny’s just a vehicle.

Aidan McArdle gives Rick a careless, thuggish ruthlessness as he plays Seth and Jenny off against each other. As suggested by the hints of harpsichord in Max Pappenheim’s jittery, over-stimulated sound design and the prism-like mirrors revolving in the background of Andrew D Edwards’s set, the firm is basically a renaissance court reconfigured for today.

But Dry Powder never pushes enough beyond its premise: that people who work in finance are ethically vacant monsters in sharp suits who’d screw over everyone to make a profit. Maybe that’s true – but, here, it results in largely easy laughs that feel unearned by the writing. The stereotypes are already targets a mile wide.

The play also gets bogged down in its financial speak. It might be authentic, but it’s still a problem when you have to turn to a glossary of terms in a play’s programme notes afterwards to fully understand the title.

Hayley Atwell is wasted in this sporadically funny but dusty take-down of high finance