Student theatre has a reputation for being experimental, and from the offset ENRON sounded like it was sure to be an oddball. It is a drama about a corporate scandal: that can work. After all, The Big Short did pretty well for itself. But then you spot the velociraptors, and begin to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself in for. As it turns out, ENRON was a polished masterpiece of student theatre that I would happily watch again.
Many members of the audience might already know the story of Enron, the Texan energy giant which went bust in 2001. It was a kingpin in the free market during the 1990s, but in the new millennium it crashed, as the company had been propping itself up with wilful accounting fraud. Even if you aren’t familiar with the original scandal, the story hits home for anybody who was affected by the 2008 financial crash: that is, anybody old enough to buy a ticket.
The play presents a central cast of four characters surrounded by a lively, multi-role chorus. Jeffrey Skilling (James Murphy) is the ambitious CEO of Enron, Andy Fastow (Alex Rugman) his brilliant but unquestioning chief financial officer. Claudia Roe (Abby McCann) is the corporate foil to Skilling’s speculative investments, and Ken Lay (Jonny Wiles) the owner who prefers playing golf with future presidents to investigating his company’s accounts.
Each actor was superb. Although all of the central cast seemed at first to be merely stereotypes, as the play progressed they grew in depth, even developing contradictions, which were portrayed persuasively and compellingly. Rugman deserves particular praise for his presentation of the man behind the plan: Fastow, a geek who “isn’t a people person”, orchestrates the fraud behind the company’s billion-dollar profits. Rugman encourages us to write this employee off at first, and later to realise our mistake.
The stand-out performance of the show, however, was the chorus. They took on multiple roles as lawyers, traders, reporters, security guards, accountants, and children, yet brought energy to each and every one of them. Emma Howlett’s direction gave them complex sequences of choreography and physical theatre, lines to deliver while running, and so many props, yet they coped brilliantly and brought pace to every part of the production.
Recognition is also deserved by Bethan Chilmers’ stage team for dealing with such a large collection of single-use props – they gave the production a professional aesthetic and made every sequence striking. ENRON is no War Horse, but the raptor puppetry was impressive, as were the puppets themselves.
I’m sure that many people will look at the subject matter and decide that ENRON isn’t worth it. I declare that they are wrong. I know more about economics now than I thought I could learn in an evening, and I laughed while I was learning it. Lucy Prebble’s script is excellent, but it has been superbly brought to the Oxford stage by Emma Howlett’s fantastic team. There is no aspect of the production that I can fault, from acting to costume, lighting to graphics. Find the time to see it – you won’t regret it.