A play’s worth what the market will bear, says Peter Crawley
No show ever rejected an audience because they weren’t right for the play. But it’s never been clear whether the patrons of Caryl Churchill’s wickedly funny Serious Money knew that the joke was supposed to be on them.
Either way, in 1987 Churchill’s exhilarating “City comedy” archly lampooned the mendacity of stock market traders and the boorish excesses of fevered capitalism, becoming – with no small amount of irony – the hottest ticket in town.
Written as an acidulous take down of the cultural logic of Thatcherism, Serious Money started out in London’s Royal Court, for generations the home of angry young men and women.
The first sign that something strange was happening was found in the car park, now noticeably choked with BMWs and Porsches. Two months before the general elections, the show ended with Ian Dury’s snarlingly ironic musical exhortation of “five more glorious years”. By the time the show had transferred to a much plusher West End theatre, Thatcher was safely reinstalled and the polemic sounded like a victory chant. The audience began to receive as much attention as the show. “It is now a bit like going to see The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with a coach party of SS men,” worried one reviewer.
That’s the trouble with satire. No matter how much bile there is behind the smile, it’s always possible to take it on face value. “Sexy greedy is the late ’80s,” was written as a sardonic one-liner, but the Gordon Gekkos on the balconies made it their slogan. Or so the story goes. Watching
Serious Money 22 years on in Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s ferociously good production at the Project Arts Centre, when hostile takeovers seem quaint and few Porsches are left unattended outside the theatre, it looks as if rumours of the play’s capitalist co-option have been greatly exaggerated. The traders here are so enjoyably venal, you wonder how anybody could have ever identified with them.
More curiously, though, the play seems giddy with the excitement of the piranha tank it depicts. Even its musical numbers are revealing. They may have been intended as a two-fingered salute to their West End neighbours, but they stand up with them. Could it be that to skewer something you actually have to love it a little first?
Serious Money could never be fully absorbed into the culture it criticised. At a time of smooth commercial packages, it was too rough around the edges, too aggressive and knowing. But what really marked it apart from a culture of flash excess was its poverty. Spillane-Hinks has 15 actors at the service of nearly 60 parts, but the original used only eight actors. The gap between the gluttonous world of high finance and the overstretched world of theatre could only be filled with ingenuity. A London trader is no less susceptible to the seduction of creativity than a Marxist critic.
When it came to the capitalist masters of the universe, though, the theatre preferred to laugh at them, then worried they were simply laughing along. Perhaps the play has finally had its revenge. Serious
Money is still here, indefatigable and acridly humorous. Where is Gordon Gekko now?