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Phil Willmott

Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at the National Theatre

Lehman trilogy London theatre has already offered two theatrical marathons this year, THE INHERITANCE soon to return to the West End, and IMPERIUM, currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre. Both clock in at around seven hours. By comparison the LEHMAN TRILOGY at the National is a mere three and a half hours and can be viewed in a single performance.

But is it really a trilogy? It's certainly in three acts divided by two intervals but no part is a self contained play so claiming it's a "trilogy" is rather self-aggrandising. However there is much hard work to appreciate.

The lights come up on a swanky Wall Street boardroom - all chrome, glass and black upholstery. A cleaner is at work whilst a radio reports the imminent collapse of The Lehman Brothers financial house in the heat of the most recent economic crash. Its fate will be decided the next morning.

Three ghostly figures in black frock coats arrive one by one who begin by representing the German immigrant brothers who founded the company, from very humble beginnings, in the late 1800s .

Together they tell the story of the bank's fortunes over the next 100 years or so, each playing dozens of characters with subtle and skilful shifts in their physicalities. Adding a pair of glasses here, a swagger there, picking up a cigar to suggest one business man, adopting a shuffle to suggest another. That kind of thing.

The setting doesn't change significantly to represent specific locations either. The actors just rearrange the furniture and cardboard boxes of paperwork. But the set does rotate, around and around and around, against regularly changing projections and it's all beautifully lit to make it seem like loneliest place in the world; at times high in a tower block, at others as if it's adrift in a no man's land at the end of the world.

It's all highly skilled and meticulously accomplished, not least the work of the three actors Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley who rise to the challenge of portraying many vivid characters admirably, even if they do occasionally slip into a slightly sing-song delivery when narrating.

This is a chance to enjoy great actors, striking design and direction and an epic story. So why did it leave me cold?

For a start it's about ruthless financiers that are very hard to care about but also because, although it's a story of Jewish immigrants, it seems to lack an authentic Jewish voice.

There's a hint of self-congratulation in the execution of it all too, as if everyone's constantly aware that they're doing something impressive and don't want you to forget it. Despite this, the minimal stagecraft means that it would work just as well as a radio play or an audiobook and no one needed to go to all the trouble of presenting it on stage.

The "too-big-to-fail" financial crash has been regularity and thoroughly explored and this play tells us nothing new. In fact we know, but the characters don't, that it wasn't actually the end of the world, as it seemed at the time, and that capitalism soon righted itself.

It's big news that movie director Sam Mendes took the helm on this one but his staging, along with Stefano Massini's play as adapted by Ben Power, though admirable is, ultimately unsatisfying.

The Lehman Trilogy tickets