Theatre review: Enron

Posted on: 04 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Lucy Prebble’s brilliant new play Enron that’s moved to London’s West End at the Noel Coward Theatre.

The greed and power-mongering of the 1980s that led to the biggest bankruptcy in corporate history is to put firmly in the spotlight in Lucy Prebble’s brilliant new play Enron, that moves from sell-out runs at Chichester and the Royal Court to London’s West End at the Noel Coward Theatre.

Energy giant Enron was the US’s seventh largest corporation. It had taken 16 years to grow from about $10 billion of assets to nearly $70 billion, building plants and supplying natural gas and electricity. It took, however, only 24 days to go bankrupt. A company praised by many pundits as a new business model that met and exceeded its financial targets with ease was described, in hindsight, as a house of cards built over a pool of gasoline.

The company’s downfall began with Harvard-educated CEO Jeffrey Skilling’s disastrously over-ambitious plan to count as profit all of Enron’s expected future earnings. To this end he’s helped by chief financial officer Andy Fatow, who created a chain of bogus companies to conceal Enron’s losses.

But the event that really caused the company to collapse was when, thanks to the lobbying of chairman and founder Kenneth Lay, the son of a Baptist preacher and in his early 60s, whose ‘friend’ included George W. Bush and George Bush Snr, California introduced a deregulated power market. In 2001 America’s richest state suddenly had power shortages and a programme of rolling blackouts saw cities go dark, people trapped in lifts, hospitals postpone operations, roads in gridlock and schools closed. This resulted in prices soaring by as much as 400% when the lights went back on. Enron’s traders had turned the power industry into a casino and were yanking the economy of California on a leash. But it was not long before the good times came to an end for the company - and the law caught up with the corrupt Enron executives.

Writer Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold’s greatest achievement here is to make the Enron scandal and the complex accounting fraud involved both accessible and exciting, so that we follow the rise and fall of the company with the fascination of a first-class thriller that keeps us glued to our seats.

The play, however, does not just point the finger of blame at business and bankers but at us all - we are all complicit in our desire to get rich quick, whatever the cost.

Goold’s five-star production skilfully mixes politics, satire, savage comedy, modern morality and multimedia spectacle. We really feel we are being whisked from Wall Street with its ticket-tape electronic screens of Enron’s rapidly changing stock price shown in neon lights, reinforced by the raucous banter of the traders on the exchange floor, to the quieter but no less cut-and-thrust boardroom meetings where the fate of the company would be sealed.

Realism is further heightened by superb performances from Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling, Tim Pigott-Smith as Ken Lay (the resemblance between the actor and the character he portrays is uncanny) and Tom Goodman-Hill as Andy Fastow.

This unforgettable parable for our economically unstable times richly rewards investing in a ticket!

By Laurence Green

Where: Noel Coward Theatre, London

When: plays until 8 May

Box Office: 0844 482 5140

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