Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at the Shaw Festival

David Schurmann as Greville Todd and Graeme Somerville as Billy Corman

We are enthusiastic about the Shaw Festival’s decision two years ago to put on contemporary plays in its new Studio Theatre space, and we feel badly for anyone who skipped Caryl Churchill’s 1987 play Serious Money.  We saw it just before it finished its short run in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season– probably too short a run, as our show was sold out.

Serious Money was a highly sensory experience, with rapid-fire dialogue, intense choreography, rhyming lines delivered rap-style, and more than one scene in which the actors were all talking at once — this in a performing space with the audience on all four sides. The story didn’t unfold as it might in a conventional narrative play; instead it emerged, one might say, through a series of collage-like scenes. But it was a good story, and the overall effect was enervating, not overwhelming. We have new-found respect for director Eda Holmes, who kept it all together (and seems to have served as her own choreographer).

The crowd goes wild at the London Stock Exchange. The fake money was left on the stage at the end of the show, and folks in the audience, who had to walk across it to get out, snatched up the bills as souvenirs.

The plot turned on one of our favorite topics, investment fraud, also the subject of some of our favorite books (Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities) and plays (David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross). And in fact Serious Money‘s shakers and movers at the London stock market are close relatives of Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” (bond traders on Wall Street), right down to their profane, grandiose vocabulary.

We’d seen most of the actors in Serious Money in relatively staid, Shaw-era drawing-room comedies.  It was good to see them loosen up as characters in a more rambunctious social environment, especially Graeme Somerville, as Corman, the corporate predator; Marla McLean, as Scilla, the rich girl who tries to figure out what her brother was up to before he got himself killed; and Nicolá Correia-Damude, as the captivating Latin American investment mogul Jacinta Condor. (Most of the actors played two or three roles; seeing any play requires suspension of disbelief from the audience, and this one required more than usual.)  We were, unfortunately, once again reminded why we don’t think Ken James Stewart, who plays the murdered brother and other roles, is a convincing actor. All in all, though, we were very thoroughly entertained.

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