Revival puts Caryl Churchill back in the game

“The commodity is money. You can buy and sell money. You can buy and sell the absence of money, debt, which used to strike me as funny.” So says Kirsty Bushell’s headstrong Scilla, lean as an arrow and twice as lethal, in Jonathan Munby’s scintillating Birmingham Rep Theater revival of “Serious Money.”

Back in 1987, with a string of lauded plays including “Cloud Nine” and “Top Girls” under her belt, Caryl Churchill was already the U.K.’s most audacious dramatist. But with 22 years of hindsight, “Serious Money” now marks her as also the most prescient.

What first struck audiences as merely a wildly entertaining, no-holds-barred satire on the free market, insider-dealing and murderous financial misdemeanors, turns out to be an astonishingly clear-eyed warning about such contempo horrors as debt mis-management and corporate greed.

Munby’s direction not only creates the play’s (im)moral world, it drives the crucial plot threads through the potentially mind-spinning mass of detail. And by adhering to the writing’s idiosyncratic rhythms — Churchill’s text is almost completely in (often comic) verse — he reveals the play’s overarching shape.

Paul Wills’ clean, controlled design and Finn Ross’ bold video projections never allow the 1980s visual references to teeter into caricature. Backed up by all that, the cast juggles multiple roles with immense flair. Joseph May has a magnetic charm as banker Zackerman, Sara Stewart majors in scissoring viciousness, and Pandora Colin’s cooing tones gloriously nail a double-crossing Peruvian gazillionaire.

Given that nothing dates so fast as the recent past, is the play not too “period”? Absolutely not. This revival reveals “Serious Money” as one of the most dazzling political/theatrical juggling acts of the past quarter century. The only thing wrong with it is that it runs for just two weeks. A London transfer isn’t just likely, it’s a must.

SUBHED: ‘Grimes’ shines for ENO

Another revival of a great British classic is also receiving a sadly short run. David Alden’s shattering new production of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” is at the English National Opera for just nine perfs.

Like three other 20th century music-theater masterpieces — “Wozzeck,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Sweeney Todd” — it’s about an outsider vs. the community. But Alden renders the closed-minded group that Britten conjured with constantly surprising power.

“Grimes” is so musically and dramatically detailed it’s a gift for strong directors. Opera North staged a wonderfully intense version directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia,” “Mary Stuart”). What’s so distinctive about Alden’s vision is the fierce expressionist light he casts on the material. Traditional naturalism and cliched characterizations — bluff sea-folk, repressed matrons — are banished to reveal the hypocrisies of the inward community.

Beneath ENO music director Edward Gardiner’s baton, a dream cast — Amanda Roocroft, Gerlad Finley and Stuart Skelton — mesh together to towering effect. Over the past two months, ENO has won every U.K. opera award for 2008 including two Oliviers. This production seems likely to add to that haul.

SUBHED: ‘Lady’ in peril again

Classic British film is undergoing a theatrical resurgence. Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 Ealing comedy “The Ladykillers,” remade in 2004 by the Coen brothers, is headed for the stage in the fall, produced by Rupert Lord and Edward Snape for Fiery Angel Prods. The latter is the producer of another vintage Brit pic-turned-stage vehicle, “The 39 Steps,” playing London, New York, Italy, Israel, Australia and South Korea and licensed to 15 more countries.

Douglas Hodge — who delivered the great British farce “See How They Run” with sublime comic spin a couple of years back — will helm the jet-black tale of a bunch of crooks whose antics are foiled by a doddering old dear. The adaptation is by Graham Linehan, creator of hit Channel 4 sitcom “Father Ted.”

As yet, no other creatives or casting are confirmed. But there should be no shortage of actors willing to seize comic opportunities created by Alec Guinness and the young Peter Sellers. The deals have yet to be done, but the plan is for the show to open in September at a regional theater with a London berth from mid-October.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more