A compelling take on the moral dilemmas in modern finance

A scene from Dry Powder

Dry Powder
Hampstead Theatre, London
Tickets £10-£37. Finishes 3 March

The world of private equity and leveraged buyouts is controversial, associated in the public mind with asset stripping and bankruptcies. Running at the Hampstead Theatre in north London, Dry Powder, named after the industry slang for funds that have not yet been allocated to a specific project, dramatises the dilemmas that people in the sector face every day.

The play is set in a fictional private-equity fund that is reeling from a PR disaster caused by mass redundancies it has made in a firm it is restructuring. Idealistic director Seth (Tom Riley) takes advantage of the crisis to try to persuade founder Rick (Aidan McArdle) to acquire a failing luggage company. However, while Seth plans to work with the firm’s CEO (Joseph Balderrama) to turn the company’s business around with a plan that plays to the desires of status-hungry business travellers, his colleague Jenny (Hayley Atwell) wants to adopt a very different set of measures.

Her vision involves making most of the current workforce redundant and shipping production overseas, all in aid of a strategy that she admits is likely to leave the company with an uncertain future. As the two fight for the control of the firm, the fund’s own future is called into question as investors start to jump ship. This presents Rick with yet another dilemma: should he accept an approach from a dubious Chinese oligarch?

On one level, this is a tale about the conflict between social responsibility and maximising profit, but it is also about personal competition within a business environment. Atwell steals the show as an ice-cold sociopath who freely tells Seth that she fantasises about him dying, and amuses herself by sticking drawing pins in his head while he is asleep on a plane. By contrast, Riley lends his character a degree of warmth and idealism, without shying away from showing Seth’s flaws, including arrogance bordering on chauvinism, and a fatal unwillingness to put his skin in the game.

At its strongest, Dry Powder is reminiscent of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, if not quite up to that high standard, although the ending is predictable. Still, writer Sarah Burgess and director Anna Ledwich deserve credit for making the world of finance accessible to the wider public without dumbing it down. With only a fortnight left of the run, I recommend London residents make the trip to Swiss Cottage to see Dry Powder before it closes.