A bold and exhausting Sheridan

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican is an all-embracing mix of Brecht and punk.

Gadzooks but this story of gossip and gagging orders sounds familiar! Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777) about bitching, subterfuge and the control of information among the beautiful people ("people will talk, there's no preventing it") is bang on the money.

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican starts with some pumping electronic beats. The cast convenes on an informal catwalk in a Vivienne Westwood motley of 18th-century meets punk, which we might perhaps loosely call Barock. They hold Brechtian placards with character types scrawled on them ("libertine", "smooth-tongued hypocrite", "country coquette") and use their mobile phones to snap each other gurning with the audience in the background. The mood of narcissistic self-validation, Facebook-stylie is set.

Duly alienated, we watch the actors in their jocks and crinolines begin to don their hybrid costumes. We watch the action unfold on Jeremy Herbert's stage, where fakeries of all kinds are exposed: flats and backdrops are flimsy, and pasted with decoupage, or wallpaper with "blue wallpaper" written on the bottom.

The exposure of artifice does create a few challenges for the performers, who are adrift on a prairie of a stage. One must hike across the hinterland in order to grab the flowers and throw them down in a fit of pique. It's an Andean trek upstage to get to the screen and overturn it... you get the picture. The design is so intent on baring all that the exquisite claustrophobia of the Sheridan salon is all but lost. The very grammar of the doings of the idle rich depends upon being crated up like cattle together, immured in each other's drawing rooms, and climbing those walls with boredom. Here, surely, is where backbiting and snooping thrive.

Each scene change is a marvel of banners, projections, announcements -- even fireworks. There is plenty of highly affective loud music, like "Jai Ho", which was the Slumdog Millionaire theme, and "Chihuahua", which was not. But it's like a many-course meal where the appetisers and the rince-bouches totally overpower the main dishes and wreck the palate; subtler flavours are lost to us. It's a tough entr'acte to follow.

The electronic, digital overload makes the human voice seem comparatively frail, and the actors respond in curious ways to the stage that upstages, and the hi-energy, hi-concept interludes. Under pressure to large it up, at times their brief seems to have been to simply go crazy, and the result is some very strange shtick indeed. I will hurriedly gloss over the be-skirted bloke lurching around in the debauchery scenes, and the unfortunate cameo of Moses, pigeon-toed and pigeonholed as The Honest Jew. Charles, the good-hearted libertine, is played as a frazzled, addled addict: clearly an ill-matched Pete Doherty to the Waity Katy, composed heiress that is his beloved.

Some performers find a more comfortable accommodation with the Sheridan syntax: Alan Howard, as the elderly husband coping with the sex-and-shopping excesses of his younger wife and her "country ways" (all puns in Sheridan intended), transmits the mournful sing-song of a 1940s wireless broadcaster. As his blood rises, so does his pitch: it's the same cut-glass broadcaster, but commentating on a thrilling sporting event.

Warner's cheerfully anachronistic, mock-Georgian characters are a louche lot, who watch porn, snort coke and binge drink. Textual innuendo is fully outed, so thoughts of infidelity translate to actual heavy petting on the furniture. It's a show with plenty of grunt and real swagger, even if this is patchily achieved. We may be thankful for Warner's interpretative boldness, but when the final banner unfurls after three and a quarter hours, and reveals the words "it's finished, thank God," we can but say a quiet Amen to that.

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood