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Smoke and mirrors

Enron is a reminder that theatre is peculiarly well-suited to unmasking the subterfuges of the banke

Theatre is a happily apt mode for examining the rise and fall of Enron. Actors are a dissembling bunch by trade, and the smoke and mirrors, legerdemain and suspension of disbelief required to conjure worlds onstage, sit remarkably close to the conning and gulling that Enron carried out to sell an illusion to the world at large. Enron's financial hubris has been well documented: suffice to say that the truly enormous gap between projected image and reality formed the basis of a spectacular $30bn fraud.

So it's with an uncanny sense of the appropriate that we watch Rupert Goold, this year's Olivier award-winning director, pile on the theatrical techniques in Enron, Lucy Prebble's exposé of the affair. And he throws everything at it: dance, cabaret, barbershop, mime, mask, not to mention a digital soundtrack and video projections.

Prebble evinces a flair for the well-placed analogy, making the impenetrable world of business blather entertaining and occasionally hilarious, even to this financial ingenue. Financial controller Andy Fastow's speech on the creation of shadow companies - his beloved "Raptors" - designed to eat Enron's debt, is a miracle of lucidity as he compares these fake companies and their ownership to a series of boxes within boxes, like Russian dolls.

Jeff Skilling, the man who masterminded Enron's shift from utilities company, selling real stuff, to increasingly fraudulent peddler of futures and derivatives, is observed astutely by both playwright and actor, Samuel West. In his own way, Skilling was as much of a frontiersman as the pioneers who rolled their wagons out in the hope of a better life, as he pushed the Texan oil giant towards the virtual and the speculative. West contrives to look at once weaselly and sympathetic, and whilst we never forget that he's a criminal, he's a criminal who can quote Mark Twain. He actually appears to lose weight during the course of the show, as his body is subtly upgraded - better hair, better eyesight - as befits his rise from professorial lackey to CEO. In some ways the cline of Enron's fortunes is mapped in West's hair: from greasy fringe to razor-smart cut to complete disarray.

Tim Piggot-Smith, playing Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, positively skips into his role as Midwestern Republican oil man, cigar-smoking pal to George W. It's a cross between J.R. Ewing and an evangelist preacher that he looks born to play. And the third in this unholy trinity is Tom Goodman-Hill, who plays Fastow with an East Coast nerviness that has him descending to the twitchiness of a 'Nam survivor as he keeps his Raptors at bay in the basement.

Prebble's gift for the analogous is shared by Goold's use of sound and image. Part Weimar satire, part student revue, various skits and cameos are strung along the narrative thread: so Arthur Anderson, Enron's compliant accountancy firm, are portrayed as a ventriloquist act; and it's more brothers Marx than Lehman when the bankers do a turn as conjoined twins. The giant Schwarzenegger is simply one actor on another's shoulders.

Admittedly some of these images are pretty crude - collapse of Twin Towers equals collapse of Enron, for example - but others are richly suggestive. When the Enron logo appears to have been drawn by Skilling's daughter, it also resembles the chalk outline of a dead body. When Skilling lifts his arms in supplication as he watches the deadly tickertape showing the share price plummeting, it looks like he is being crucified by the numbers.

The set's central monolith alternately veils and reveals the rarified upper floors of the Enron enterprise, like the black glass of an expensive office. It also serves as the backdrop to some highly seductive visuals, including archive footage and nostalgic 1990's montages. When competing with such strongly designed electronic media, there is a frailty to the actual humans on stage that the actors do well to minimize.

As an ensemble they move competently, but perhaps not exquisitely: some of the mime moments are uncertain, some of the transitions a little forced. In some ways, though, I would have liked this very roughness and fragility explicitly acknowledged. If theatre is the perfect metaphor for the fantasy hawked by the Enron cabal, then it would have been fitting to see the strain and sweat behind the illusion, the marionettes' strings, the whole mechanics of the show exposed.

That said, the show is an ingenious, clever, humane, energetic reminder - if we needed one - that things are not necessarily what they seem in financial affairs. Banker beware!