Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Drowning men normally clutch at straws. With guys like Stone holding them, you’d think twice about bothering and just accept your fate. An alarming and accurate portrayal of the rules that apply to those drowning, in this case drowning in a sea of debt.
Hill Street Theatre is quiet. Very quiet. There’s just a couple sitting on one of the comfy sofas in the lounge bar, presumably waiting, like me, for Rules For Drowning. Shows where the cast outnumber the audience are not that uncommon at the Fringe, but when the cast numbers just four, it means they’re working with a pretty small feedback team. It’s a shame, as this is a really good piece of theatre that both deserves and needs exposure to a broader cross spectrum of people – there’s a chance then that we might understand better the mess we’ve created through the financial excesses of the past fifteen years.
We’re in downtown New York at the scruffier end of the financial district in the offices of a small-time debt trading and recovery agency. It could be any time since the credit crunch started to bite as we hear Stone, a testosterone charged male, bragging to his less than bull-like colleague Hart about the suckers he’s just hooked on the line. Stone’s suckers are small time, sub-prime losers – those unwise enough to take on property secured debts that, once the value of their home shrunk, became a ligature around their necks leaving guys like Stone and Hart holding the string and just waiting to pull it tight, but not before they’ve sucked the last drop of cash from their drowning victims.
As a portrayal of what has been happening in America over the last three years, it is frighteningly real. The “rules” by which the our enforcers extract cash fly close to and often beyond the boundaries laid down by the so-called regulatory bodies. The quick-fire exchanges between Stone, Hart and their female colleague Olivetti are taut, each being wary of the other, each looking for weakness and seeking a way of getting one over the other. It’s something of a dog-eat-dog world in the land of the distressed debt trader, with packages being traded like fruit and vegetables at the local market with no thought for the lives of those who actually have to service those debts.
Even the arrival of a man-eater in the form of Charlene from head office, parachuted in to try and clean up some of the branch office’s more extreme practices, fails to improve matters. Uncaring, arrogant, self-centred, this is an effective portrayal of a section of society at its worst. Until, that is, Hart sees the light and vows to reform, plotting the downfall of his nemesis in an interesting denouement en route.
Writer Keefe Healy has done an excellent job with his script. It’s a credible and accurate portrayal of a period that many will want to erase from their memory banks if we ever get out of this mess. Hart and Stone were both convincing characters, but there were occasions when the two ladies didn’t appear to be totally comfortable with the financial terminology they were enunciating or the characters they were playing.
That said, it was an interesting and enjoyable piece, although it’s probably an acquired taste. I’ve read a lot of books and articles on the financial crisis we’ve been living through these past three years without which I would have struggled to get full value out of this show. The other two audience members also appeared to have a pretty good grasp of what’s been going on out in the financial world. If you’re in that camp then you can hurry along down and just about catch it (show closes on 18 August).