'The Wolf of Wall Street': Theater Review

Matthew Walker
Oliver Tilney in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Diminishing returns.
1/19/2020

Jordan Belfort's drug-fueled financial crime memoir, memorably filmed by Martin Scorsese, arrives in London as an immersive theatrical orgy of excess.

Finally unveiled to press after a two-month postponement, apparently due to technical issues with its bespoke location inside a row of London townhouses, Alexander Wright's immersive stage version of The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious but flawed endeavor. Wright already has an award-winning adaptation of The Great Gatsby running in central London, but this deranged carnival of debauchery will be a tougher sell.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the confessional memoirs of disgraced New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose wild rise-and-fall story was chronicled in Martin Scorsese's hit 2013 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, which earned five Oscar nominations and grossed nearly $400 million worldwide. Scorsese's name does not feature in the credits here, but the veteran director's current high stock value in the wake of The Irishman could help this production's prospects. With tickets priced at a princely £60 ($78), it will need as much salesmanship hype as possible.

Notorious for its sex-and-drugs party culture, Belfort's Long Island brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont was shut down in 1996 after a series of "pump and dump" scams boosting the price of low-value stock to unsuspecting investors. Belfort eventually cut a deal to co-operate with the FBI, served a modest jail term for securities fraud and money laundering, then smartly reinvented himself as an author and motivational speaker. His eye for a sweet deal remains: One high-volume ticket offer attached to this production involves dinner with Belfort as a reward.

Wright's show works on the loose conceit that we audience members are new recruits to Stratton Oakmont. It opens with Belfort (Oliver Tilney) and various bellowing cohorts swearing us to a Mafia-like vow of "omertà" surrounding any illegal moneymaking antics we may witness. The crowd is then ushered to various locations across four floors: bedrooms, boardrooms, offices, bars, police interrogation chambers, even a micro-sized swimming pool. The scale is impressive, even if the makeshift decor often looks decidedly shoddy. Much of the salty dialogue is scripted and witty, but sprinkled with lightly improvised audience interaction, an artificial touch the actors mostly handle with deftness and humor.

Staging a cautionary parable about financial skulduggery in the heart of London's banking district could be read as an audacious, caustic commentary on the economic crash-and-burn of the past decade and the current political climate of hollow Trump-ian braggadocio. But any such high-minded intentions are quickly lost in a production that foregrounds boorish, bullying, profanity-laced, orgiastic excess above all else. This is a play with plenty of shouting, but not much to say.

Though wiry and intense, Tilney is a little too much of a bland caricature to evoke the wily charisma that Belfort possesses in real life — or that DiCaprio channeled onscreen. James Bryant is a far more magnetic presence as Belfort's loose-cannon comedy sidekick Danny Perush, memorably played by Hill in the film, where he was renamed Donnie Azoff for legal reasons. Strong female players also dominate this production, with Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty bringing emotional depth and sassy attitude to Belfort's wife Nadine, while Charlotte Brown exudes bad-ass cool as Stratton Oakmont's ballsy office manager Janet.

More of a promenade production than a truly immersive experience, Wright's broad-brush treatment mostly misfires due to its diffuse approach to plot, splitting audiences off into separate groups who are then scattered to far corners of the labyrinthine location. While one faction might end up opening a Swiss bank account in Geneva, another may be witnessing a drug deal, joining in an FBI sting operation, or reading a bedtime story to Belfort's 7-year-old daughter Chandler, a shared role played with great charm and conviction on press night by Suri Dejeus.

The net effect of all these narrative bifurcations means many audience members will only witness an incomplete patchwork of disconnected plot fragments. Some will encounter Belfort himself only in fleeting bursts, as happened with my group. In theory we were free to steal away in search of more interesting scenarios unfolding elsewhere, but my attempted escape was met with anxious backstage handlers eager to turn me back, as if I had wandered off the set of The Truman Show. Even though Wright's production climaxes with a strong ensemble scene in the building's bunker-like basement, which made the Stratton Oakmont office feel like a Bond villain's lair, a nagging sense still lingered that key parts of the story were missing.

Without a strong enough dramatic spine holding it together, Wright's The Wolf of Wall Street ultimately lacks bite. Watching actors snort heaped mountains of fake cocaine, simulate sex in a blizzard of 100 dollar bills, or berate each other with machine-gun volleys of F-bombs is the kind of shallow voyeuristic spectacle that very soon loses its novelty allure. The cast deserve huge respect for sustaining their high-octane performances for well over two hours, but the cumulative effect on spectators is more draining than exhilarating. Like Belfort himself, this technically impressive production talks a mighty good fight, but eventually implodes under the weight of its own overreaching ambition.

Venue: Sun Street, London
Cast: Oliver Tilney, Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty, James Bryant, Charlotte Brown, Razak Osman, Caroline Colomei, Jack Matthew, Andrew MacBean, Samuel Hunt, Fia Houston Hamilton, Olivia Marcus, Ivy Corbin, Naail Ishaq, Samuel Donnelly
Director-playwright: Alexander Wright, based on the book by Jordan Belfort
Costume designer: Heledd Rees
Movement director: Chi-San Howard
Lighting and AV designer: Rachel Sampley
Music supervisor and co-sound designer: Philip Grainger
Co-sound designer: Lara Gallagher
Presented by Stratton Oakmont Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Showtime Theatre Productions, Glynis Henderson Productions, We Culture Connect