Enron – the play

Was invited to on Friday night to see Stagecraft put on their version of ENRON. It was my second outing to Gryphon Theatre, which is one of the many small venues around Wellington. They are located by the corner of Ghuznee and Taranaki Street.

Was so caught up in pre-show conversation at JJ Murphy’s, that we only checked the time at 7.59 pm and was a 8.00 pm session. Luckily only one block away to run to, so we got there only a minute late, and got in before they started.

The play is written by Lucy Prebble, and based on the book “The smartest guys in the room”, which has been at the West End and Broadway. It did not do well at Broadway after a hostile NY Times review, but did get critical acclaim from many other reviewers.

I was worried that the play might be an anti-capitalism rant, but it wasn’t. With some great props, and skillful acting and directing, the downfall of Enron was accurately chronicled. Three of the four main characters were actual people – Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow. Claudia Roe was an amalgam character.

For those who don’t know, the bankruptcy of Enron was the then largest collapse in US history, and it also led to the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accountancy firm. I had never got into the details of exactly what happened at Enron apart from a general knowledge of mass fraud. Well the play actually informs you of what happened. You see the the various techniques used to make it look like they were profitable, when they were not. It should be a required play for first year accountancy students.

20,000 people lost their job with the collapse, $35 billion of debt unpaid, including $1.2b of staff pensions.

There was some great use of props. The Enron board was portrayed by three actors with large mouse heads and blindfolds. It was a very effective visual metaphor. And you can only love the raptors, representing the nominally independent companies they transferred their debt to – shown as actual raptors feeding on dollar bills.

For a company to be independent it had to have 3% different shareholding. So what Enron did was set up raptor 1, 97% Enron owned and 3% owned by raptor 2. raptor 2 was 97% Enron owned and 3% owned by raptor 3. This carried on through to raptor 4, which only needed independent holdings of 3% of 3% of 3% of 3%, which they got off firms such as the Lehman Brothers (and you will love how they are presented as a pair of Siamese twins).

Tim Yarrow played Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO. He started the play as a socially awkward accountant and became the confident CEO consumed with his own brilliance. John Chalmers as the good old boy Ken Lay, who didn’t want to know the details. Luke Gumbley played Andrew Fastow, the ambitious CFO who put it all together. Michelle Jordan was the fourth main character playing Claudia Roe, the female excutive who battled their plans, but not too hard.

They had a large ensemble who provided delightful interludes as staff, as raptors, as a a chorus, as news presenters etc. Emma Yarrow stood out with her singing. It is not a musical, but it did have some brief singing and dancing interludes which were fun.

The play is a long one, lasting two and a half hours (with an interval). However I never lost interest, as you really wanted to see how the story would be told, as it moved towards the inevitable conclusion.

Enron is on until 11 August. I enjoyed it. Despite the serious topic, they managed to be both fun and interesting. If you’ve ever wondered how a company can lose $35 billion and yet show a profit, then go see the play.

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