Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: 'The Trap' at the Omnibus Theatre, 1st November 2017

The Trap reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

A decent proportion of the profits of the British economy are wrung from the sweat of the poor. Shrinking real wages and zero-hours contracts have created an economic group struggling to keep their heads above water. Ever-rising rent needs to be paid, the lights have to stay on, kids have to be in school uniform and dinner needs to be on the table. Living with financial insecurity is terrifying, so it's no surprise that many seek solace in fixed odds betting machines, cheap booze and buy now/pay later financing.

It's a jungle out there, and the predators in the bushes are payday loan companies like Wonga, Cash Genie, and Quick Quid that offer short-term, easy to get loans loaded with fees at exorbitant interest rates. Pay them back on time and you're fine (aside from them pestering you with targeted ads). Miss a payment and you're in trouble: 

"About 8 months ago I borrowed around £90 to pay for a train ticket to see my now ex-boyfriend. What a slippery slope that was. I'm now approx £3,500 into payday loans across four payday lenders. I can only barely afford the interest repayments on these darn things every month."

These are businesses designed to lure in desperate people with low incomes in the hope of squeezing them dry. This trap is the subject of The Trap, a new play by Kieran Lynn. Set inside a branch of the fictional Debt Duck ("the UK's premiere payday loans company") we follow area manager Meryl (Wendy Kweh), branch manager Alan (Andrew Macbean), and his employees Tom and Clem (Jahvel Hall and Sophie Guiver).

Despite their prime position in the market, Debt Duck is in trouble. New government guidelines are due to be imposed in an effort to regulate the industry and belts need to be tightened. Ironically, each member of Debt Duck has their own financial problems to contend with as well, ranging from a hefty mortgage to Estonian gangsters with a penchant for kicking the shit out of people. 

What follows is a comedy that wields gags as scalpels, dissecting the situation until the horrible truth of payday loan companies is revealed. These observations range from the obvious: the characters noting the parallels between themselves and the gangsters pursuing Alan, to the subtle: lines of dialogue are repeated amongst the characters to show that they're all similar, and all morally culpable for their actions. 

It's a meaty subject, yet communicated with deft, evocative dialogue. A high street background of pubs, off-licences, pawn shops and cash for gold shops is described as "the forest that grew from the ashes of crisis". Later, Meryl berates Alan, "your shop is in the middle of skid row and you couldn't sell payday loans. You've spent years in a barrel full of tits and all you've done is suck your thumb!" It's also fascinating hearing the characters justify themselves, explaining that they're "almost like a charity" and trying to foster an 'us vs them' mentality. It feels all too believable, chiming well with real-life defences of these companies.

By the end, you get a sense of the slow burning cruelty of life on the breadline, best exemplified by Clem's miserable "I hate this feeling. I feel like I'm going to spend my entire life just making ends meet. I'll live someone else's life because I couldn't afford my own.

I laughed a lot during The Trap, but that doesn't make it any less serious. You realise that companies like Debt Duck are merely a symptom of misery rather than a cause, that they're a small cog in a machine designed to laden people under a lifetime of debt and squeeze them as hard as they can. The problem, inevitably, is capitalism. And in a cruel twist, these characters understand all too well that they have no chance of derailing that juggernaut.

My only real nitpick is that the play ends rather abruptly and I'd have like a bit of closure to the characters' stories. But I guess wanting to see more is a compliment in and of itself. The Trap is a fine bit of comedy theatre, crammed full of ideas, sharp writing, charismatic performances and evocative set design. I enjoyed myself. You probably would too.

The Trap is at the Omnibus Theatre until 19 November. Tickets here.

Production Photos by Laura Harling

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