In 2006 Desmond O’Connor and Andrew Taylor pulled off an amazing feat with Failed States, a powerful, intelligent indictment of Britain’s anti-terrorism laws … in the form of a stage musical. It has taken them some time to follow up that small-scale success. The title of Toxic Bankers suggests the likelihood of satire (it might be rhyming slang, yes?), but not the certainty; the show itself is likewise irresolute.
Fiona, a junior number-cruncher for an ethical hedge fund, notices something amiss in the transaction records. Meanwhile, the boss has employed a concierge service to take care of all his employees’ life hassles, but there is clearly more to these smiling flunkies than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Fiona has deeper emotional problems (one of the show’s upbeat numbers comes when concierges sing to her of the wonders of “Fluoxetine”, aka Prozac); meanwhile, so in their sketchier ways do her colleagues; meanwhile …
By this stage I felt like Peter Shaffer’s Emperor of Austria, complaining, “Too many notes, Mozart!” The inevitable corporate wickedness, which one more or less expects to be the climax of the plot, is both revealed and aggravated before the interval (with lines such as “We currently own 40 per cent of Greece”), leaving the second half free for ever wilder and more fantastical developments. But these need to be interwoven with moves towards at least Fiona’s personal resolution, resulting in even greater diffuseness of focus.
One cannot fault the ambition of Taylor’s script, though, nor of O’Connor’s songs. He scarcely ever cops out with lazy rhymes, demonstrating instead an Ira Gershwinian lyrical facility; he also shows a fondness for layered vocal counterpoint, right from the opening number in which all four of the hedge fund’s staff sing distinct working-day words and melodies. Hazel Gardner makes a sympathetic Fiona, Jonathan Dryden Taylor a powerfully greedy boss.
But the production (Andrew Taylor also directs) feels cramped in a number of ways, not just in the postage-stamp-sized basement of what is already an underground venue. Video clips help cover scene changes but also suggest even more plot than is dealt with onstage, and an hour each way of playing time feels overmuch given such limited resources. If it lost half an hour and two or three plot strands, it would hit fewer targets but hit them harder.