FringeReview UK 2019
Katharine Farmer’s revival for Blue Touch Paper Productions at the Southwark Playhouse Little features Emily Leonard’s set, graphics and costumes: two opposing desks wide-girth black suits with a smug stripe and big hair. Sam Waddington’s pinpoint lighting keeps the duetting spotlit, and John Leonard’s sound provides period soundtrack.
‘I love money more than the things it buys. … but what I love more than money is other people’s money.’ That’s Lawrence Garfinkle and being the devil he gets the best lines.
So Rob Locke’s Larry the Liquidator intends a hostile takeover of a worthy but obsolescent Rhode Island family business. New England Wire and Cable honourably, profitably run by the son of the founder – the second CEO in 73 years – by Michael Brandon’s Andrew Jorgenson. He provides jobs for 1200: an entire small town’s population. Garfinkle wants to asset-strip it, realize those assets and pocket the difference between him and dumbfounded shareholders.
Katharine Farmer’s revival for Blue Touch Paper Productions at the Southwark Playhouse Little of Jerry Sterner’s 1989 hit Other People’s Money is a visceral close-up affair. In Philip Larkin’s phrase, you can hear money singing to itself. Emily Leonard’s set, graphics and costumes convey in a svelte dash the way five actors two opposing desks (‘80s black gloss versus ‘60s chipboard) wide-girth black suits with a smug stripe and big hair waft the period back to us. It was made into a famous 1991 film starring Danny de Vito. Sam Waddington’s pinpoint lighting keeps the duetting spotlit – much of this is duetting, and John Leonard’s sound provides horribly nostalgic soundtrack.
Mark Rose’s narrator the CEO-designate William Coles ably sets out the narrative, a bit like Alfieri, though apart from a few interventions as the voice of realism and common sense, as well as the epilogue, his role is more muted than at first you think it might be. He knows the cost of everything and the price of it: exhorts Jorgenson (in Brandon’s idiomatically weary bright-eyed-idealism) and his secretary-lover Bea Sullivan (Lin Blakley) to take the advice of Sullivan’s corporate lawyer daughter Kate (Amy Burke).
Coles, forever ignored, has more than a point. Kate immediately suggests shifting the business to Delaware where you need 67% of a firm’s shares to take over, not 51%. But will Jorgenson listen? Burke scorches through her role, ever injunction-rapping her way through a series of options Jorgenson ad her mother simply won’t countenance. Sterner’s expertise in fluently conveying these initially dizzying options comes not just from experience in that world, but his making it funny, snappy, sexy. Above all exciting.
And he does that of course in the face-off of Locke’s magnificently inhabited doughnut-scoffing Garfinkle: ‘Since when do you have to be hungry to eat a doughnut. It doesn’t taste any better.’ Initially welcomed by Jorgenson when he visits twice (he’s disdainful of their doughnuts, first swivels the chair round so they stand while he sits; next time they’ve made their own doughnut stand) he soon makes his position clear, as Coles warns. Even so Jorgenson, who treats Kate like a daughter, is outraged by all her suggestions, and her options shrink.
And it’s her face-off with Garfinkle that sparks the core drama. He’s sexist, insurance-swerving (a girth impressively bulked out) and Burke’s Kate is both appalled and impressed. She wants to beat him: it’s personal. Burke gleams through appalled fascination and rivalry to grudging admiration. As for the battery of lawyers Garfinkle finds are outwitted by her, he has contempt: ‘Its not illegal’ Kate concedes and his point blithes it home: ‘It’s immoral – a distinction lawyers ignore.’
Garfinkle realising how well-matched they are immediately tries another tack after offering doughnuts. ‘We make passionate love the rest of the night. The first one that comes, loses.’ After she recovers from that effrontery Kate ripostes too: ‘Someday the laws will change to put you out of business.’ Garfinkle’s cheerful ‘Change the laws all you want, but you can’t stop the game. I’ll still be here. I adapt.’
Garfinkle’s lines are easily the most memorable, like Orson Welles in an office. It sums up the 80s when as he points out Kennedy’s ‘Ask not for what your country can do’ has been overturned in less than a generation. ‘Make as much as you can for as long as you can. Whoever has the most when he dies is the winner.’ Occasionally a little pseudo-Robin Hood edges a moral universe then subverts it: ‘I take from the rich, I give to the middle class… Well, the upper middle class.’
Kates not the only visitor. The hapless Bill Coles arrives twice. ‘Can I speak frankly?’ Garfinkle ripostes ‘I always speak frankly. I hate people who say ‘Can we speak frankly?’ It means they’re bullshittin’ me the rest of the time.’
Even Bea Sullivan tries bargaining – a role Blakley really makes her own in the passionate upping of the role in the second act makes clear. Kate has never forgiven her for falling n love with the young Jorgenson, and the tensions between mother and daughter are another layer Burke and Blakley play out, partly through the antagonism of Brandon’s anxious unbending CEO.
As to what happens, it’s nail-biting as loyalties fracture, new alliances form, all within the five-strong cast and it’s something as horribly relevant now as it was 30 years ago. Even fibre-optics make an appearance. As Trump tries reviving the rust belts with rusty promises you can see how reanimating that seething resentment at the loss of manufacturing translates to votes. This is raw and infects us all. Burke and Locke are spellbinding, leading a faultless cast.
In that de Vito film Garfinkle was changed to Garfield, losing Sterner’s blackly ironic self-portrait as a Bronx businessman – like Garfinkle – who turned playwright aged 42 in 1980. There’s another layer here too, the way the apparently benign Jorgensons of this world, Swedish and European settlers who take the land as theirs, ensure the Garfinkles and Sterners will never feel that secure, that virtue-signalling; and know no option but portable property. Dying aged just 62 in 2011, Sterner’s tombstone reads ‘Finally, a plot.’ This is more than a plot it’s a small masterpiece and this is s visceral as greenbacks get when pushing down on you. A superb revival.