BOYS WILL BE BOYS by Melissa Bubnic, produced by SILO
In a nutshell: Terrific ensemble performances in a brilliantly written and directed play about women working in the financial sector that asks serious questions about the celebration of profit.
Astrid (a hard-boiled fast-talking Amanda Billing) is one of the top earners in a stockbroking firm when she interviews Priya Sen Gupta (played with the right amount of eagerness and brittle naivety by newcomer Vanessa Kumar), a young graduate, hungry to make money in one of the most competitive but potentially lucrative jobs that currently exists. Astrid is inclined to think she is too nice, but gives her a chance and proceeds to initiate her into the male-dominated world she has learned to navigate so well. It is a world where every weapon; sexual, psychological, financial, will be used to secure an advantage over the rest of the field, and where the normal rules of professional standards, legality, trust and transparency do not apply. ‘We whore,’ Astrid tells Priya. If it takes a night out at a top restaurant or a side glimpse of her tits to secure the deal, she’ll make sure they get that view.
The other new kid in the firm, the son of a big client, just wants to be a theatre director. He has been given every opportunity Priya has fought for but doesn’t have the balls to reach out and take them. His disinclination to play the game earns him the contempt of everyone in the firm. Lucinda Hare plays him like an eager labrador puppy, desperately wanting to be liked, and way out of his depth. Harrison baiting is everyone’s favourite game until things turn nasty. It is a strength of the play that it turns notions of victims and aggressors on their head.
Their boss Arthur is a silver fox of the old school, all charm on the surface, sexual bully underneath. He gives his brokers as much rope as they like for the auto-asphyxiation as long as they bring in good revenue streams. If not, their future, or lack of one, is not his concern. Jennifer Ludlam, in a phenomenal performance, completely inhabits the role. This is a man with sharp grey hair, a cock, and a smile that turns from charming grin to rictus leer. Ludlam gives Arthur the facility to make people feel special in one moment and worthless in the next. She has a swagger that is erotic and repellent in equal measure. You can’t take your eyes off her.
It is not a surprise that in this play the most honest and self-aware character is a busy prostitute. Isabelle, a terrific Jodie Rimmer, is Astrid’s confidante. It is unclear if Astrid is a lesbian or just wants the company. She pays for Isabelle’s time either way and, like her peers, works on the understanding that as long as she pays, she can do what she wants. Rimmer projects a woman who despite the indignities manages to find a way to hold the world and her clients at bay, in her mind if not her body, just. At the end of the play she is shaken, but she continues. She has bills to pay.
Sophie Roberts has pulled together a terrific team amongst the women in the business. Rachael Walker has outdone herself creating a fixed set that conveys offices, hotel foyers and nightclubs with little more than a lighting change, allowing scenes to flow at a cracking pace. Rachel Marlow’s lighting is spot on. Most important of all she has picked up on great writing. The play is pacy, very funny, interspersed with terrific musical numbers – Billing has a superb voice – and it is not dull for a moment. It offers the visceral excitement of watching Gladiator, or Margin Call, big rollers at a casino, or a downhill ski race. The stakes are high, and the characters are gutsy, intelligent and on top of their game. You may not like them all but you will enjoy them. This is free market economics as theatre. Whoever performs the best gets to play a little longer, and the five women are acting as if their lives and careers depend on it, which to a degree they do. Half the audience are actors who would give their right arm to perform for Silo, and as Billing stumbles ever so slightly on a couple of lines, one wonders how many would be more than willing to take over her role. Those who succeed in this environment will fight to protect this competitive approach, because not only are the rewards intoxicating, so is the game itself.
And yet the majority of those who play this sort of game, they do not stay in it for more than a couple of decades at most – brokers, advertising executives, pop stars, rugby players, navy seals – before being moved up or out. Coping with this amount of adrenalin, and isolating commitment, cannot be physically or emotionally endured long-term. Many – like scientists battling for funding – don’t enjoy this sort of game at all. Economics meets X-Factor. The winners take it all, and the losers slip off into obscurity.
This play is set in a financial centre, perhaps New York, perhaps London, perhaps Sydney. It is convincingly set in this world but was first inspired by events and attitudes in the military. It could also be set in the upper echelons of politics in Berlusconi’s Italy or the British Conservative Party. It speaks wider than the play itself, going beyond the culture of financial trading, but the current political ideology that privileges the market and competitiveness above anything else. Bubnic has written a play with cracking dialogue, wit as sharp as an Armani suit that asks questions that matter. It could not have come at a better time.