Review - The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Thursday, 23 May, 2019
Review by: 
Victoria Ferguson

In September 2008, the top brokerage firm Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was the largest bankruptcy filing America had ever seen, and sparked the greatest financial devastation since the Great Depression.

Adapted from Stefano Massini’s play, in this production for the National Theatre, Ben Power and director Sam Mendes tell the story of the men behind the world-famous corporation, from the moment the three brothers from Rimpar, Bavaria – Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley) Lehman – made the crossing to America in the mid-1840s.

The production is epic. Divided into three acts of almost an hour each, it covers the history of this family over almost two centuries. The scope of the play is quite unbelievable, but Power’s script is expertly paced, with the dialogue set to the soundtrack of Candida Caldicot’s beautiful piano, rhythmic like a divine clock compelling time onwards.

Tragic, funny and full of the wit and rhythm of poetry, The Lehman Trilogy is narrated by the Lehman trio in the third person. Initially, this takes some getting used to, as it keeps the audience at a remove that doesn’t exist in dramatic realism. But the narration elevates the storytelling to something like biblical authority and allows the characters to express their ambitions, fears and motivations with clarity and great humour.

Es Devlin's set is an impressive, revolving, giant glass box split into what looks like the meeting rooms of a New York office. Behind it, a screen conjures up the backdrops to this cross-generational tale, from the plantations of Alabama to the skyline of New York.

Mendes’ play is one of shifting parts and constant movement. The accents change from German to New York as the immigrant brothers are overtaken by a new generation; the sign of the Lehman Brothers shop constantly evolves, each one marked in pen like a memory on the glass walls of the set; the actors use cardboard file boxes to build platforms and staircases as the giant set revolves and the years pass.

Beale, Miles and Godley are astonishingly good. They play three generations of Lehman men as well as all the supporting roles. They are as malleable as clay, switching fearlessly from playing young men to old, from women to children, and the different characters are established through unique and playful refrains, repeated over and over like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.

This is a long play, but the actors attack a dense script with such energy, humour and classical mastery that the drama canters weightlessly on through 174 years. This is one of those occasions when the idea of a different cast taking on the mantle is heartbreaking. The singular alchemy of acting, design and direction in this production is so superb that it must be witnessed.

The Lehman Trilogy is at the Piccadilly Theatre until 31st August. 

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