Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Party in the USA / Broke, Edinburgh Fringe

Review: Party in the USA / Broke, Edinburgh Fringe

Published in FEST, 13.08.2014

It’s the economy, stupid. Or is it the stupid economy? Either way, it seems no-one’s got much of substance to say about the dire financial straits in which we find ourselves. Banking is baloney, say JV Squad. Gosh, thanks for that. Debt’s a bit of a bugger, according to the Paper Birds. Who would have thunk it? No-one’s expecting The Complete Works of Thomas Picketty (Abridged), but surely—surely—we should expect something more sophisticated than this?

Let’s start at the beginning: with the big old financial crash itself and JV Squad’s pyschadelic portrait of a broken banking sector,Party in the USA! In 2008, director Joshua William Gelb dropped acid the night before Lehman Brothers collapsed, then returned to his Deutsche Bank temp job, scouring employees’ emails for potentially incriminating evidence of mis-selling. David McGee’s script jumps off from that moment to look at global finance through the pin-sized pupils of an LSD-tripper, arguing that the banking sector has no more basis in reality than a drug-induced hallucination.

But you already knew that, right? McGee and Gelb trade insight for outraged mockery: How could professional moneymen have offset loans worth more than there is money in existence? Moreover how could Barack “Yes We Can” Obama so fundamentally fail to change a thing since? There’s a real sense of betrayal at work here that manifests itself in a fizzing piece of ironic agitprop.

The problem, theatrically speaking, is that they retreat so far into psychedelic surrealism that anything goes and nothing matters. Lowly temp Jeff, played by the gangly Johnny Gasper, swirls through a mish-mash of strudel-obsessed superiors and anarchist squatters to become some kind of monetary Messiah, preaching from the steps of Congress: “Everything Is Going To Be OK.”

It’s a dizzying whirlwind of a plot that might survive in a clearer production that helped you keep your bearings. However, with the seven-strong cast in red-and-blue shell suits, sprinting this way and that, the whole thing feels like one long improv skit: all wacky characters and trippy non-sequitors. JV Squad have pep and flair, and performances are uniformly strong, but the lack of focus means this bewilders and bamboozles.

In Broke, The Paper Birds set out to examine our relationship with debt, both as individuals and as a wider society. A mix of Creature Comforts-style talking heads, personal testimony and a smattering of facts and figures, all given a twist of physical theatre, it looks neat but ultimately lacks rigour.

Out of a string of vox pops, the piece hones in on Sally, a 28-year-old mother living on—and often under—the breadline. It’s a empathetic portrait of the way debt creeps into every decision and every day: she can’t answer the phone in case a loan’s called in, she can’t socialise and she can’t keep up with other parents. In one heartbreaking scene, the interviewer tries to coax her into describing her ideal home: “It’s got a red door,” she replies. “Two bedrooms.” That’s it. Debt stops her dreaming.

Alongside this, the company detail their own finances, with Kylie Walsh, in particular, laying out her entire credit history: how, over a decade, she clocked up £13,000 in debt – on bills, holidays, Superdrug spending sprees and so on, before being bailed out by her mother’s pension. There’s bravery in that: owning up to irresponsibility and checking privilege at every turn. It’s that that gives the Paper Birds a right to take the subject on and, sensibly, they advocate better education over wholesale change.Broke’s peppered with the imagery of childhood: bedtime stores and toy cash registers. We raise good little consumers and we borrow to give them what they want. “I’m trying really hard,” says Sally. “It’s difficult.”

However, there’s something deeply problematic in this. Broke appropriates Sally’s situation to make a piece of art for selling at one of the most expensive, competitive arts festivals in the world – a festival renowned for leaving artists in debt. Without acknowledging that—without interrogating its own terms and conditions—Broke leaves the question of its own utility hanging unanswered: What if the production budget had been used to pay off Sally’s debts instead?

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