The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer-Autumn 2018
There are four excellent reasons to see The Lehman Trilogy.
One is the play itself, an always interesting, always clear and always entertaining history lesson. And the other three are Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, three actors of immense talent, subtlety and magnetism.
In telling the story of one family business and, by extension, of almost 200 years of American history, Ben Power has adapted and edited a play by Stefano Massini which was evidently even longer than the current three and a half hour length.
He did so with such skill, aided by the fluid and fast-moving direction of Sam Mendes, that the play holds your attention and emotional involvement, and it is well into the last hour before there is even the hint of flagging energy or focus.
The play is a trilogy only in the sense of having three acts, each focussing on a different generation. The Lehman dynasty is an archetypal American story of both rise and fall.
In the mid-nineteenth century three immigrant brothers open a small store in Alabama and begin the process of ably spotting opportunities before anyone else. From selling clothes to cotton farmers they expand into selling farming supplies, and then into selling the farmers' cotton to mills and fabric companies.
When the Civil War destroys the cotton trade they move sideways into wholesaling coffee, and the borrowing and lending that is part of their business leads to opening a bank. Through the next century they and their heirs move at just the right moments into investing in railroads, radio, tobacco and the stock market.
Massini's epic follows three generations of Lehmans as they adapt to and flourish within a changing America.
(One reason the story loses some of its fascination toward the end is that the Lehman Company eventually moved beyond the family, becoming just another faceless corporation, if a big one. And Massini's account, or Power's editing of it, all-too-obviously loses interest in it, barely mentioning the company's ultimate collapse in the 2008 crisis.)
The tale is dramatised in a Story Theatre mode, the actors moving fluidly between narration and enactment, often speaking of their own characters' actions in the third person.
The three stars play not only the original brothers but, as time moves on, their sons and grandsons, as well as instant characterisations as customers, competitors and any number of subsidiary figures. (And each gets a chance to delight the audience in a brief comic turn as the wife or sweetheart of one of the others.)
Simon Russell Beale dominates the first act as the senior brother and brains of the family, who spots the opportunities and pushes his more cautious brothers into them, while Ben Power is the hesitant and occasionally rebellious one and Adam Godley the compromiser and peacekeeper.
In the later generations Simon Russell Beale is the fast-thinking, fast-talking wholly Americanised son of Ben Miles's character while Miles is the more idealistic and socially-conscious son of Godley's who eventually leaves the firm to go into politics, and Godley is the grandson who weathers the 1929 stock market crash and pushes the company toward such size and status that it has no use or place for Lehmans any more.
Each of the actors thus gets to play at least two extended – and very different from each other – roles along with a string of secondary cameos, while also serving as bemused and frequently amused narrators.
And they do so with such ease, subtlety and dexterity that they are a delight to watch, just as skilled performers flexing their artistic muscles.
Meanwhile the author and adaptor keep what could have been a dry or confusing account of economic history alive and engrossing by never straying far from the personal and personality-based level, along with employing such clever narrative and explanatory tools as casual but enlightening comparisons to chess, tennis and other games.
Three and a half hours is a pretty heavy slog, and I suspect that the play could have lost at least thirty minutes to its advantage. But both as a fascinating story fascinatingly told and as a vehicle for three bravura performances, The Lehman Trilogy may well prove a highlight of the theatrical year.
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