There’s been a lot of talk lately about how apathetic students are, but Ema Boswood’s direction of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly – just one play in Queen Mary Theatre Company’s excellent End of Season Festival – is an entertaining and provocative rebuttal to any suggestion that young people aren’t interested in energetically engaging with political ideas. And Love and Money is all about Big Ideas. Not just the mingling of romance and finance promised by the title, the play is a scathing indictment of contemporary capitalist society, furnished with existential predicaments – a morally ambiguous parable about how we live now.
Kelly plays on what seems an endless number of embedded clichés to do with what can and can’t be purchased with money – happiness, love, etc. In his vision, though, the characters seem to have forgotten what so many songs and greetings cards remind us. The central figure Jess ‘believes happiness can be bought – but it doesn’t come cheap in a world of easy credit.’ The extension of these kinds of financial metaphors – the idea that we all have to pay for our decisions or that a person can be morally bankrupt – is at the heart of this twenty-first century morality tale. A play about a marriage ruined by debt, it’s also about the debts we have to other people.
Martha Pailing’s handling of the erratic big spender Jess is striking – a funnier and more sinister shopaholic than Sophie Kinsella’s Rebecca Bloomwood. The play, unlike the world, revolves around Jess and her suicide, setting off backwards from her widow David’s disturbing explanation of her death during an email conversation with French colleague Sandrine. Melenik Milmano and Moa Johansson kick the play off on its reverse journey with David and Sandrine’s snappy online exchange, an early indication that seemingly everyday occurrences will pretty sharply be revealed as moments of the weird and shocking. From David’s awkward attempt to start the email – something we all can relate to – the flirtatious chat begins, before Sandrine’s refrain, ‘Tell me of your wife’, leads to the revelation that the rest of the play recounts.
The breakdown of one relationship is symptomatic of an entire global culture’s collapse. If charity starts at home, then, so does economic failure. Though the play’s themes have grand implications, political speeches and debates are swapped for scenes comprised of emails, job interviews, chats; everyday manifestations of the economic system we live in. And written in 2006, Love and Money has proved popular owing to renewed debates around capitalism triggered by economic crises and the so-called banker-bashing anger of the public. But unlike a play set at the heart of power by David Hare or James Graham, for instance, Kelly is much more interested in dramatising neoliberal ideologies at work on the small scale.
This is a play about death and Big Ideas and what Ed Miliband might call predatory capitalism, but it’s really funny, too. And I don’t think that’s an accident. The Godfather of modern political theatre Bertolt Brecht believed laughter and fun were essential to the political power of theatre, and this production certainly makes the most of the dark humour which accompanies the vitriolic critique.
We get the measure of this kind of comedy early on from Jess’ parents, played by Billy Gurney and Maria Pullicino, as they reveal their distaste – and envy – for the ‘flash’ and ‘vulgar’ grave of a Greek woman next to their daughter’s. We can only laugh as the Father has his outburst about the price of the headstone (the Mother scorns him for mentioning VAT), but, as they keep saying, they’re not rich. Amongst the taboo humour, and probably the reason why we’re laughing, are the uncomfortable truths of just how hard death is to deal with. And even though we feel we shouldn’t worry about the (financial) cost, death, too, is a business. The spending goes on after Jess.
Love and Money is full of awkward encounters. David’s job interview with his ex Val (Annabelle Sami), and her catty, Audi-driving assistant Paul (Peter Walker), relishes the discomfort and sourness of the situation. It’s time for Val to get her own back on the desperate English graduate David, who now hopes to pursue a career in sales. She wants to do him a ‘favour’, but it won’t come easy. Beneath her mocking and bitterness, she reveals a nihilistic heart: she loves and worships cash. She used to believe in religion, just as Paul believed in socialism – he still votes Labour, mind – but now wealth and power fill their dreams.
In a ‘shitty pub’, Debbie (Tilly Bungard) seems to be pestered by the tipsy Duncan (Jack Ridley), in another strange meeting that goes far beyond where we expect it to. As so many weirdoes in pubs promise, Duncan wants to make Debbie famous – well, everyone’s thought about being on TV nowadays. Typical of the whole show, this scene is saturated with swearing, and becomes an air raid of C-Bombing.
From foul language, though, the actors do well to perform Kelly’s often jagged, staccato lines, which look more like poetry on the page. Kelly’s script is written carefully to depict how real people speak, drawing attention to hesitations, breaths, mistakes, and the performances follow suit with an obvious consideration of the text. It’s an achievement in any theatrical performance to follow a clever script, while at the same time encouraging the audience to forget that the broken and muttered and spat-out lines are actually printed on a page. This could be improvisation, except the language is so well-worked and intentioned; it’s constructed, as great writing often is, to seem fluent, mundane, and inconsequential, as if every word were spoken at random – as we tend to think we speak – when actually it’s all strictly penned and rehearsed.
‘I’m just so / looking forward’ are some of the last words of the performance and Jess’ final speech, but in the world of the play they are the first, since we’ve ended up at the beginning of Jess and David’s relationship, before everything goes wrong. It is a strength of Pailing’s performance that we meet Jess halfway through the play with her frenzied love of shopping in full bloom, announcing that as a child she discovered she was an alien, and we watch her manic personality gradually shrink until we are left with only the seeds of what we know will become her addiction. As she speaks, more quietly now, (and places her make-up in a bag) we can see she will become a woman standing outside a shop transfixed on a handbag, but, crucially, we also see her when she looks like all of us, that is, just liking ‘things’ and wanting a ‘neater’ life. Her acting matches the tragic effect of Kelly analeptic tale, where we finish with what actually turns out to be a really crushing sense of sadness as Jess tells of her excitement for the future.
As a piercing keen starts to drown Jess out, her final words signal her enthusiasm to begin her new life, but it’s already been written, and the audience knows how it will turn out. There’s no room for manoeuvre in this world, and closing the show, she says, ‘That’s it.’