Gillian Lynne Theatre, London – 20 May 2023
Three hour-long plays, two intervals, three men in black frock-coats explain some financial history in a revolving glass box in front of a projected, mainly monochrome, cyclorama. When it triumphed at the National Theatre in 2018 I wrote “this show has no right to be so much fun”. Recast and home again, it still is a treat after waltzing Broadway and LA and winning a Tony for Best Play.
First time round it was during Trump’s visit: now it’s post- Trussonomics. Clearly there’s never a wrong time to tell this moral, intriguing, endlessly fascinating tale about the collapse of the immense American finance house Lehman Brothers, whose legal but lethal subprime activities triggered a global financial crisis.
The play earned every one of its plaudits, for its Italian author Stefano Massini, adaptor Ben Power, director Sam Mendes and, not least, the designer Es Devlin, who created the glass box evoking a NY office-block hell, whose interior shapes are constantly rebuilt by the players to create a past: their building blocks are the cardboard file-boxes in which ruined employees carry home their belongings. If they survive at all.
As it opens, the three brothers are ghosts in that modern office, drifting back to how it all began. Chaim, first out of Bavaria in 1844, agrees with the 1844 immigration officer that okay, he’s called Henry. In the Alabama cotton–fields he starts a small fabric and garment store serving owners and overseers (and slaves, who come in on Sunday when it’s the only shop open, Lehman having marked Shabbat).
Three years later Emanuel arrives, then the youngest brother Meyer, nicknamed “potato” and regarded by the family as a useful buffer between his strong-willed elders. They move into selling seeds, tools and carts – “it’s all business”. A fire devastates the crops, and with vigorous Jewish pragmatism Henry sees that when “everything is lost, everything must be re-bought and re-planted”. So they lend against future repayment in a share of the crop; cut a deal with the state governor, become a bank and are soon selling on the cotton, making deals with more plantations and big industry. Denim was born so. They think bigger, dodge round problems and disasters and a Civil War with quarrelsome, inventive energy and ever-modifying dreams, scrawl calculations on the glass with marker pens.
They have to find acceptance too: be trusted, talk doubters round, marry. When Emanuel goes to New York he is delighted to find Jewish names on offices – Goldman, Sachs, Sondheim. In their newly invented role as “middlemen”, they confound doubters and soon millionsworth of business is “all passing through a small room in the South where the doorhandle still sticks”. But New York is the magnet, and growth the imperative. They survive, marry, raise new generations, grow, change.
It is an acting challenge, a masterclass. Nigel Lindsay is Henry, Michael Malogun Emanuel, Hadley Fraser young Meyer. Each drops deftly in and out of becoming other characters: locals, clients, politicians, their own wives and children with varying characters and ages.
Fraser and Lindsay in particular are excellent shape-shifters, clowns when needed; but all three hold every diverse part, sometimes only for seconds, with clarity and wit. Sometimes you laugh at their nerve and cheek and family bickering (one leaves altogether, for politics).
Sometimes there is a still personal moment acknowledging the strangeness of the immigrant experience. When Meyer keeps his outdated striped-spats in his thoughtful old age it is because when you arrived from Ellis Island in the 1840s, everyone looked at your shoes. Often – the glass set is one of the stars – one of them grabs a marker pen and scrawls something on the walls: a new company name, a calculation, an idea.
The trilogy shape is elegant, a reproachful history lesson in how the West’s exuberant expansion blunted sense and virtue. The first act is about firm but honest business, trading solid goods, with the moral background of Jewish observant tradition : they sit shiva for a week for Henry. The middle act is expansion, industry, coffee, tobacco, railroads, the vaudeville whirl of ’20s New York , gambling risk against responsibility: the vaudeville tightrope-walker Solomon Paprinski crosses Wall Street for years without falling, until, a living metaphor, he falls. Yet as Lehmans came through the Civil war, middlemen between North and South, so they have to survive the ’30s. The third act is grim with suicides on trading floors and poverty on the streets, but a young Lehman generation is rising., both in the boardroom and in hardscrabble families. Which will, finally, produce the whirling ruthless chaos of a business where there is no real coal or tobacco or railroads but money. And “money is a ghost, it is air, it is words…what if everyone stops believing?”. And now shiva for the last family death is held not for a week, but for three minutes. The last Lehman , power lost, dances the Twist amid tieless, ambitious tech-crazy colleagues in a frenzy of 20c speed and greed, the cyclorama of New York windows whirling behind them until you have to hold onto your chair, half laughing and half afraid. As we should be. Magnificent.
Box office lwtheatres.co.uk. To 20 May