Money changes everything

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It’s probably as well to say this upfront: Stefano Massini‘s The Lehman Trilogy, at least as adapted into English by Ben Power, is basically an extended theatrical stunt. Three (superlative) actors play the three brothers who founded Lehman Brothers in 1850 – and they play everybody else as well, switching characters, genders, ages at lightning speed as they tell the story of the bank’s rise and fall. I suppose having the three actors who played the three original Lehman Brothers play every role is probably meant to make some kind of point about the dynamics within a business dynasty, but that point begins to break down in the final act, because by the time of the bank’s demise in 2008 it had been almost forty years since a family member sat on the board.

If you don’t dwell too much on why Ben Power chose this rather eccentric form of storytelling for his adaptation of Stefano Massini’s original script, which allows for a significantly larger cast, you’ll be rewarded with a dazzling three hours of theatrical storytelling. Under Sam Mendes‘s meticulously precise direction, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley are on top form as they embody (and switch between) a dizzying array of characters; as they navigate Es Devlin’s revolving monochrome glass-and-steel office set, we see the story of American capitalism reflected in the story of this one bank, and the fact that this story, and the ramifications of it, comes across so clearly as delivered by three middle-aged men dressed in 19th Century frock coats is a spectacular theatrical achievement. Yes, you’re essentially watching a (very long) history lesson, but in the hands of Mendes and these actors it’s also great fun, and sometimes very funny (Simon Russell Beale is pricelessly funny in one scene as a procession of potential fiancées). This subject-matter could easily produce an incredibly dry play, and it’s to everyone’s credit that The Lehman Trilogy is anything but.

If you’re looking for a thorough examination of the bank’s collapse, though, this is not it. Yes, we see the seeds for the bank’s collapse being sown long before it happens, and we’re shown the crash and the effects of it – the final tableau, indeed, directly shows the effects of the crash on the bank’s employees, and is the most moving thing in the production – but you won’t get a detailed lecture about the complexities of the subprime mortgage crisis (if you’d like one – and really, what could be more fun? – then The Big Short is on Netflix). Power’s adaptation of Massini’s original (and significantly longer) Italian script glosses over a number of significant points in the history of Lehman Brothers as an institution, including the bank’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, which isn’t mentioned at all – an odd choice given that a significant chunk of the first (of three) acts is given over to the American Civil War.

And – after Hamilton and The Inheritance this seems to be a recurring theme this year – if third-person narration in the theatre irritates you, this show will irritate the hell out of you. Mendes and his cast tell their story brilliantly – but they tell more of the story than they dramatise, because that’s the inevitable result of cramming over 160 years of history into three acts and three actors. The flow of information is such that you can’t sit back and let it wash over you – this is a show where you have to pay attention (yes, I know, that’s soooooooo last-century). It’s a testament to the skill of Mendes and his cast that it’s always absolutely clear who each actor is embodying even though switching characters is accomplished without costume changes, but if you let your mind wander for even a second it would be easy to get lost. This is in many ways a tremendously exciting piece of theatre, but it’s hard work, particularly when you’re sitting in the thigh-busting lower-back-breaking cheap seats at the front.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, although at this point it’s day seats only. The Lehman Trilogy is often stunningly good, the actors are truly brilliant, and Es Devlin and Luke Halls’s set and video projections provide a far more varied visual palette than you’d imagine possible from what amounts to a single glass-and-steel Mad Men-era office and a monochrome backdrop (you may need Dramamine in the lengthy sequence in the final act in which the office structure and the projections appear to be revolving in opposite directions). Candida Caldicot’s solo piano accompaniment (there are also prerecorded music cues; the music is by Nick Powell) often gives the show the feel of a silent movie, and that’s certainly one of the major influences in the production’s visual aesthetic. It’s a spectacular, overwhelming, thrilling piece of theatre – but, as I said, in this version it’s basically a stunt. You’ll be bowled over, but you’ll also be picking holes in it for days afterwards. Like last year’s Network in the same space, this is very definitely a show to experience. The production, overall, is far more fascinating than (this version of) the script.

Oh yes – and Simon Russell Beale’s brief-ish turn as the cynical, sharp-tongued Manhattan divorcée who marries a prominent Lehman descendant is worth the cost of the ticket in itself. In an evening of brilliant caricature acting, he’s first among equals.

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Changing my major to Jeanine

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Take tissues and don’t wear mascara. Your tear-ducts are probably not going to survive the last thirty minutes of the Young Vic‘s exquisite production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s Fun Home. I mean, not that I generally wear mascara myself, but if I had I’d have emerged from the theatre looking like a distressed panda, and that isn’t a good look for anyone who isn’t a panda. Based on Alison Bechdel’s peerless autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home is sweet, sharp, charming coming-of-age story, but it’s also a coming-out story, and (eventually) a shattering examination of the degrees to which we can ever truly understand our parents.

On top of that, it’s a masterclass in how to distill the essence of a full-length novel into an hour and forty minutes of stage time. Lisa Kron’s admirably clear-eyed book separates Bechdel’s coming-of-age story into three separate timelines: the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) tries to understand the chain of events that led her father (Zubin Varla) to commit suicide, Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) leaves home for college and the discovery of her own sexuality is quickly followed by a conversation with her mother Helen (Jenna Russell) which includes a shocking revelation about her father’s, and Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull at the performance I saw) navigates her father’s severe, apparently inexplicable mood swings and experiences her first moment, which she doesn’t quite understand, of identification with a strong, butch woman. On paper it sounds painfully earnest, and it isn’t; it begins as a truthful, funny exploration of family dynamics, and then the show somehow sneaks up on you. Despite the three separate narrative strands, the storytelling is absolutely clear throughout, and Kron and Tesori guide us through Alison’s complicated emotional landscape with remarkable precision.

There are two lynchpins holding the show together. One is Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful score, which functions less as a series of standalone numbers (although there are a few very fine standalone numbers) and more as a kind of continuous texture which moves seamlessly from dialogue to recitative to song and back again. You won’t get the kind of Big Melodies you’ll find in something like Les Misérables, but you might get your heart broken – and you also might well come out of the theatre humming ‘Ring of Keys’, Small Alison’s glorious anthem of self-discovery. And you might very well need those tissues during ‘Days and Days’, Helen Bechdel’s devastating aria about how she’s spent her life burying her feelings for the good of her family. It’s a model of musical and lyrical restraint, probably the best thing in the show, and it’s all the more moving because it’s so carefully buttoned-down. The show’s other lynchpin – surprisingly, given that it’s a relatively small role – is Jenna Russell’s quietly stoical Helen Bechdel, whose sacrifices for her family become clear in the last third of the show. There are few fireworks in Russell’s extraordinary performance, but she somehow, without grandstanding, manages to find every last scrap of subtext in a character who keeps nearly everything buried beneath the surface.

But then, under Sam Gold’s careful direction, the performances across the board are ideal. Kaisa Hammarlund is as right for Alison as she was wrong for Sweet Charity, and she brings both warmth and humour to Alison’s growing understanding that she enjoys a freedom her closeted father never experienced. Eleanor Kane makes Medium Alison’s journey of sexual self-discovery sweet as well as funny, and her (brilliant) musical number charting her sexual awakening with a fellow college student – ‘Changing My Major’ – is the closest this show comes to a bravura showstopper. Zubin Varla is both (appropriately) slightly creepy and exceptionally moving as Alison’s father Bruce, presenting a man who can never quite find the courage to be who he knows he is, and who can’t always stop himself from taking out his frustrations on the people around him. Harriet Turnbull is a perfectly charming Small Alison, and her ‘Ring of Keys’ is lovely. The ensemble performances are flawless, and so is the small band. As I said, Gold’s production is exquisite.

It looks exquisite too, thanks to David Zinn’s less-minimalist-than-it-first-seems set. Judging from production photographs, this does not appear to be an exact recreation of Gold’s two previous proscenium stagings of the show (at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently for a US tour; the Broadway production played at Circle in the Square, and was therefore staged in the round). The show moves from a carefully fluid scenic concept in which various locations – the Bechdel home, the yard outside, the family funeral home which gives the show its title, the adult Alison’s work desk – are suggested via minimal furnishings on an essentially bare stage, to a carefully-detailed (and gorgeous) recreation of the living-room of the historical house – almost a museum – Bruce has spent his life restoring. You don’t come to this kind of show for the spectacle, but the revelation of the house’s interior is a dazzling visual coup; Ben Stanton’s lighting, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the show’s three timelines distinct in the moments when they all occupy the stage simultaneously.

In fact, there really isn’t anything much here to criticise. This is an impeccable production of impeccable writing; you won’t get the sort of verbal and musical pyrotechnics you’ll find at this year’s other big musical import from Broadway – but stunning as it is, there’s nothing in that show as moving as ‘Days and Days’. I confess, I still think Caroline, or Change is Tesori’s masterpiece – but this is up there in the same league, and it’s certainly as good a new American musical as anyone has written in the last twenty years.

So… now that we’ve seen superlative productions of this and Caroline, or Change in London, can somebody please bring us a full-scale professional revival of Violet?

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The Deep End

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It’s brief – under forty minutes – so this will be too. As Alex, the speaker in Simon Stephens‘s monologue Sea Wall, Andrew Scott is quite extraordinary. Stephens’s monologue tells a story about Alex’s relationship with his father-in-law, and moves quite quickly from a charming family portrait to a harrowing exploration of grief; it’s written as an intimate confessional and performed on a bare stage with the house lights up (there is only one lighting cue, and it comes at the very end of the piece), and under George Perrin’s direction Scott somehow manages to make you feel he’s telling his story directly to you, even when (as I was) you’re sitting in the back row of the dress circle. It’s a charming, devastating, profoundly moving performance, and a thrilling masterclass in how to grab the audience’s attention and hold on to it without raising your voice or moving more than a few paces. By now you’ve probably read a dozen pieces praising Scott’s performance to the skies, and he deserves all the acclaim and more.

The piece itself, on the other hand, is effective, but it isn’t as good as the performer delivering it here. Stephens has some excellent lines, and he does a very good job of sketching the dynamics between the various members of Alex’s family in the first few minutes of the monologue, but there’s a point where the writing starts to become predictable; when tragedy looms, you can see it coming a full fifteen minutes away, and that’s an issue in a piece that’s under forty minutes long. Stephens does, though, make one genuinely brilliant writing choice, and paradoxically it’s silence. There is a moment where he could have chosen to make Alex say any number of things, all of which would have been plausible, and chooses instead to leave us to fill in the blanks, and that (long) pause is the most powerful moment in the production.

In the end, though, what you remember is Scott standing in the middle of a bare stage, wearing nondescript clothes, playing the audience like a violin and doing it without breaking a sweat. It’s a short piece, but it’s a remarkable feat of storytelling – even if, as I said, you’ve figured out where the story is going a long time before it gets there.

 

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