A three-act, three and a half hour night at the theatre about the Lehman financial group and its downfall may not sound like the most exciting evening. But that is exactly why it's so good.
The set by Es Delvin is a model box that ultimately becomes the Lehman corporation's top floor offices. Filled with boxes it rotates between sequences with a stage-width widescreen behind referencing different eras. The transparent walls of the box double as signage that the cast erase and rewrite throughout the show. The sound scope, accompanied live by Yshani Perinpanayagam is cinematic.
Ben Power has streamlined this five-hour long play by Stefano Massini into a packed-out three hours. With a complete re-casting and a new space, it's ambitious. Zoé Ford Burnett (West End Director) has the show looking fresh, it's slick.
The show begins in New York with a Bavarian Jewish man and his two brothers. They start their story with next to nothing - three hours later and 163 years ahead, the Lehman's have risen and fallen by great success, generations have been and gone over and over. There is considerable head nodding to immoral business that the brothers took part in. The business was largely built on the back of slavery and shady dealings. We see how it enabled them even though it's not explicitly said - that's for us to think about.
Across three acts we see the family business transform into a banking empire: we go from a clothes shop to a broker to a bank. Stefano Massini is doing more than raising a brow at corporate greed. He exhibits how it consumes the brothers with feverish dreams, how it destroys their interpersonal relationships and ultimately how it weakens what started as a deep-rooted Jewish faith and business venture. The rapacity the brothers possess is multiplying with their capital and their time for prayer, humanity, even mourning their lost ones becomes an afterthought. The week-long traditional mourning streamlines into a few moments of silence at the office. Each generation of the Lehman's moves even faster and just as we think “they must be satisfied”, they want more. It's addictive watching these characters tick, they are addicted, the audience are absorbed by it.
Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay bring this epic to life without fault. Landing sensational performances as the three Lehman brothers, their long line of descendants and many other characters.
Self-narrating the characters and playing them this way has to be the most challenging, intricate script work I've seen actors nail. There is no stand-out performance in the show because each and every character multi-rolled is embodied to perfection. You may think that the audience would need a suspension of disbelief to keep up with the plot but it just shows that the devil is in the details of the story. It's not just about the business, but it's about the people: who they are, how they work. Crises hit them and they stand up again. The civil war jeopardizes their livelihood. The 1929 stock-market crash is looming from the beginning. The feeling of impending doom washes over the company until what turned out to be the largest bankruptcy filed in US history. It's just epic and shows us nobody is too big to fail.
The Lehman Trilogy is captivating, thought-provoking and inventive in every measure. Is the American dream worth living if you never get to live? This feels like a striking time to bring this play back into this big city. Things to reflect on perhaps.
It runs until 20 May. Tickets from £24: here - and you can get an extra 8% off with the code LTR8.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Mark Douet