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Review: Labyrinth (Hampstead Theatre)

Beth Steel's new play heads back to the early 80s Latin American debt crisis

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Had enough of stories explaining the global financial crisis in snappy ways? Rewind: Labyrinth takes us back to the early 80s Latin American debt crisis, to show how the people-crushing wheels of finance turned in much the same way, long before the credit crunch. Beth Steel's ambitious play not only finds pertinent parallels to our recent situation but also very effectively delivers a clear account of the complicated crash of an entire continent.

That's no mean feat: she's obviously digested vast amounts of information about the toxic loans between American banks and Latin American countries. In the late 70s, the banks lent vast sums to these rapidly growing economies, often to fund infrastructure projects that were never completed. When an oil crisis saw American interest rates jump, so too did the debt of developing nations; when Mexico threatened to default, the first bail-out was negotiated by the banks and the IMF. Naturally (though still blood-boilingly) it was the ordinary citizens that ended up paying: austerity is no new idea, surprise surprise.

The technicalities of such loans and the layers of corruption, deception and sheer greed on all sides – cocky American bankers don't come out of this well, but then nor do corrupt finance ministers for dictators – are indeed labyrinthine, yet Steel's play leads us through with both admirable clarity and zip. Jetting across continents in a blink, fuelled by fast-paced, blackly funny dialogue, the crisis attains a thriller's pace in Anna Ledwich's production, and proves fascinating to someone who – hands up – knew literally nothing about it.

What are less effective, however, are the human stories she attempts to ground it with. Our guide through this amoral maze is John, the self-made young embodiment of the American Dream; initially shocked by the bank's massaging of facts, he soon adjusts. In truth, Sean Delaney's soft performance better suits the nervy naïf than the financial mastermind with killer instincts he becomes. Still, Tom Weston Jones as an oleaginous, macho manager and Martin McDougall as the cookie-loving, profit-hunting southern gent of a bank boss provide plenty to loathe.

Fleshing out John's overly familiar trajectory are daddy issues: his absent father committed fraud, wound up in jail, lost his family everything. When he returns to haunt John, it isn't clear if he's real or a figment of John's sleepless, drug-and-drink addled brain. It's a fruitful tension, but one that could be further teased out, while the guilt pangs John suffers when he finally notices the parallels between his dad's cons and what he's conducting on a global scale feel a tad schematic.

Andrew D Edwards' traverse design lets scenes whoosh in and out, hectically lit by Richard Howell in appropriately nervy neon, in labyrinth patterns that evoke Pac Man more than any more classical allusions. When John's conscience – and the global markets – convulse, lights flicker ominously.

The lighting also helps transport us through anguished dream sequences and, in the second half, wild bouts of partying and choreographed movement. This sudden shift in storytelling approach seems both unearned and unconvincingly done; it also painfully tilts at a certain Rupert Goold, Enron-style slickness and physical vitality, without ever matching it. A moment when two bankers are briefly illuminated rutting in animal masks is really one step too close; if it's unfair to expect Labyrinth to be "the next Enron", Ledwich might have taken more care to avoid provoking the comparison.

Labyrinth is at the Hampstead Theatre to 8 October.