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Acting out the metaphor of money

Matt Trueman reviews three productions which deal with the idea of cold, hard cash.

Mission Drift; Hard Feelings; ThatcherWrite
The Shed, London SE1; Finborough Theatre, London SW10; Theatre503, London SW11

Las Vegas, 2008 – an electric oasis in a death-dry desert. One of the fastest-growing cities in the US, it’s a good-time boom town, an image of the ultimate American dream: perpetual growth. Mission Drift, now in-house at the National Theatre’s temporary venue the Shed, shows it waking up in a cold sweat.

The New York-based company the Team subjects its nation to theatrical biopsies. It prods at its psyche and dissects its soul, often entwining mythology with current calamities. Architecting (2008) fused Hurricane Katrina with Gone with the Wind; Mission Drift, a smash hit two years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, blames the recent financial crash on America’s founding fathers.

Framed as a cabaret, emceed by Heather Christian’s sardonic Miss Atomic, the play shows that the present turmoil of Las Vegas is the inevitable result of its past. Joan is a newly redundant cocktail waitress during the recession. Her hopes rest with a half-built mega-casino, the Ark. Its owners are Chuck and Cat, descendants of two Dutch teenagers who landed in Newfoundland in 1624.

Joris and Catalina (also played by Brian Hastert and Libby King) are 14 years old when they arrive. Instead of settling, they move on; they are not pilgrims but pioneers. Always on the run, they tear through towns like a business- brained Bonnie and Clyde. They’re still 14 when, 250 years later, they found Las Vegas. Catalina is permanently pregnant, Joris always adolescent. Capitalism depends on that constant state of becoming. They rip down casinos to build bigger ones. Their mantra: “The frontier is the birthright of every American.” To stay still is to fall behind.

That philosophy causes a chain reaction. The city eats itself to expand. A parallel is made with the nuclear bombs being tested in the nearby desert. The financial backers pull out of the Ark. Joris and Catalina – Chuck and Cat – move on, with no trace of responsibility for the crumbling Las Vegas they leave behind.

This is fiercely intelligent stuff. Christian’s bluesy gospel-soul songs, belted in a voice as scratchy as cacti, twist the mood this way and that. The physical vocabulary – pin-bowling and foot-stomping in explosive dance sequences – is engrossing. The language is just as sumptuous. If I have one niggle, it’s the interval: the second half’s frazzled implosion needs to spin out of the first’s pent-up momentum. Here, it returns deflated.

Doug Lucie’s Hard Feelings, revived at the Finborough for the first time in London in 25 years, is another metaphor of money. In a flat in Brixton, five Oxford graduates remain oblivious to the riots outside. While Molotov cocktails burst in the streets, they’re mixing their own vodka-based creations. Their only politics is house politics but Lucie shows that, even at that microcosmic level, they favour the privileged. It’s Viv’s house and that means she makes the rules – at least, until Mummy and Daddy turn up.

Lucie’s play works as drama but what must have felt prescient in 1982 now looks bluntly obvious next to Thatcher’s legacy, even if it chimes with our times. James Hillier’s production suffers from too many period slips (Fanta red fruits?) but it’s worth seeing for its rising stars. Isabella Laughland is superb as the petulant but self-pitying Viv, and there’s great support from Zora Bishop, Margaret Clunie and a preposterously louche Jesse Fox.

Thatcherism gets another interrogation at Theatre503, with ThatcherWrite: seven shorts in response to her death. The best are either even-handed or outrageously satirical. Kay Adshead presents three poems by 17-yearolds, Blair’s babies, to examine her legacy. Then there’s Jon Brittain’s and Matthew Tedford’s uproarious skit that imagines Maggie as a superstar at a Soho gay bar. There is an underlying rigour – even liberals see the appeal of her political ardour – but mostly it’s just hysterical. “Where there is disco, let us bring harmonies.” Next stop: Vegas?

“Mission Drift” runs until 28th June; “Hard Feelings” runs until 6 July. “ThatcherWrite” ran between 11-15 June

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland