Labyrinth burns with an intensity that seems to have become standard fare for new writing at Hampstead Theatre. As with her first two plays, Beth Steel works on the fringes of the political realm with characters you’d expect to be involved in these crises. Like her award-winning Wonderland, Steel incorporates unflinching historical detail into the surroundings her characters find themselves in.
These choices seem to set Labyrinth with a formula for powerful domestic drama. Indeed, the sheer believability of business being carried out in various interchangeable South American states do make an often thrilling case against high finance. Like recent big screen successes such as The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, deadpan takes on unclear moral lines deliver compelling antiheroes who in Labyrinth, take on the shape of archetypal dodgy banker, Charlie (Tom Weston-Jones). However it is also Charlie who competes with whiplash-inducing stage direction for influence over John (Sean Delaney), the play’s protagonist and frame of reference.
This competition constructs a metaphorical labyrinth of interactions that is often more lopsided than captivating. John’s backstory as a self-made man constantly haunted by his swindling father (Philip Bird) frequently steals attention from the unfolding drama; its inserts weigh down the furious pace picked up by scene changes dictated by strobing bass and lights. These conspicuous stage and lighting designs are full of energy but are left with not much to work with thematically, only serving to depict the fragmentation and degradation of mind in relation to time and space as the financial crisis deepens. John’s internal crisis is portrayed effectively at times, but often does not fall and rise in tandem with that of the external. This means there is never really any sense of ache, especially since Labyrinth does not treat its references to current events delicately.
Little pieces of playful exchange populate the dialogue when John and Charlie are offstage, easing off tension with conversations about lousy lovers and so on. One wonders if these were thrown in to insinuate some sense of the everyday among the play’s characters, although this would have been largely wasted by the obsession with John’s obsession with his father. It is at this point where Labyrinth loses its sheen and voice, settling back into a conventional greed-leads-to-destruction story. As the narrative progresses, it leaves behind the excitement of its setting behind, along with the room-sized carpet stylised as an American flag.
Energy can only hold so much in Labyrinth. It overstays its welcome too when it deviates to its moral point about the repetition of past mistakes because human desires tend to reach beyond what can be reached. Eventually, Labyrinth’s big forces blot out any small instances of humanity, not too unlike the greed it attempts to depict.
By Edward E. for Bakchormeeboy