I wonder if I was the only person in the Piccadilly Theatre last Saturday afternoon who kept expecting a moment towards the end of The Lehman Trilogy when someone would announce that they’ve just hired an up-an-coming young executive by the name of Nick Leeson and a few years later, the bank would disintegrate. Ah, no, that was Barings Bank. Wrong bank, wrong collapse. Easy mistake.
Lehman Bank, on the other hand, was a different story. In 1844, Hayum Lehman left Germany for the wilds of Alabama to make his fortune. They couldn’t understand his accent so Hayum became Henry, and he opened a general store. During the next six years, his brothers Emanuel and Mayer emigrated to join him. The general store became Lehman Brothers, trading in raw cotton as well as running the shop; and despite Henry’s early death in 1855, and against all the odds of fires, the American Civil War and financial crashes, the company thrived to become Lehman Bank. Their investments and trading spread wide, through the railways, the coffee exchange, and, come the 20th century, airlines, cinema and cigarettes. You’d have thought them unbreakable.
But, as they say, the only constant is change, and, amazingly, all it took was the subprime mortgage crisis to snuff them out, after 164 years of trading. There’s a photo in the programme just of the backs of the staff members at Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf taken through the back window on 11th September 2008 – and that’s the tableau on which these three and a half hours of terrific drama finishes. To get to that climax, there’s a painstakingly riveting and inventively staged journey, starting with Henry’s first awestruck glimpses of America, through the brothers’ creative plans, their various wives and girlfriends, their talented progeny, and finally the latter days of the company where excess followed excess, whirling them into oblivion.
Es Devlin’s stunning, revolving set provides us with a sophisticated modern office suite, with panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape – wherever that particular city happens to be. Evocative video projections recreate the cotton fields of Alabama, the skyscrapers of New York, or the hurly-burly of a stock exchange. Stacking office packing cases – the ones you use to archive old files, etc – are constantly and cleverly moved around the office by the cast to represent podiums, pianos, chairs, and so on, each time transporting us into a different scene. That contrast between the high-tech staging and the simplicity of the packing cases adds texture to the structure of the play. As does the live music – performed, from the auditorium, by pianist Candida Caldicot, in part suggesting the era of the silent movies, at other times simply providing mood music to accompany the drama. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a live pianist at a play, and the onstage action and the keyboard performance integrate beautifully.
It’s called The Lehman Trilogy – so, as you might expect, it’s structured as a three-act play (or three one-act plays, take your choice). Just three actors portray the three brothers – and then they go on to play all the other characters too; coquettish girlfriends, grumpy fathers-in-law, spoilt brat children, as well as the three main latter-day Lehmans – Philip (son of Emanuel), Herbert (son of Mayer) and Bobbie (son of Philip). Once they’ve died out, it’s left to the non-family successors to take the company onwards, but not necessarily upwards. Although the actors never change costume – always looking like respectable 19th century American businessmen – their characterisations are so varied and entertaining that you’re never remotely confused as to who’s speaking.
There aren’t many safer pairs of hands on the stage at the moment than Simon Russell Beale’s – and his performance is just fantastic. His wide-eyed faltering wonder as Henry first arrives on American shores; his eye-fluttery portrayal of the demure pianist Babette; his oft-divorced Ruth, gradually growing bored of her husband; his quietly arrogant smart-arse Philip, channelling a Jay Gatsby-type of personal programme of self-improvement, choosing a wife by scoring her on various qualities, much as one would choose one’s preferred Eurovision entry. His voices, his bearing, and his sheer bravado constitute the thread that joins the entire play together – he’s outstanding.
Adam Godley is also brilliant as Mayer Lehman, the smooth potato of the bunch (you have to see it to understand that reference) who acts as a conduit of compromise between his two fierier brothers. Among his other notable moments are his portrayals of Emanuel’s object of affections, Pauline Sondheim, the range of Philip’s possible love interests, and the showbizzy eclectic Bobbie, maniacally running to make as much money as possible. Ben Miles completes the triumvirate as the hot-headed Emanuel, the public-spirited Herbert and many others. All the performances are a complete tour-de-force throughout, both in their creativity and their technical mastery of their roles.
On the face of it, you might think that 164 years of business could be a dry and dusty subject for such a long play – but not a bit of it. This is exciting, character-driven drama that leaves you fascinated by so much human achievement and in awe of the brilliance of the performers. Fully deserving its standing ovation, the short season has just been extended and it continues to play at the Piccadilly until the end of August. Highly recommended!
Production photos by Stephanie Berger