Theater Reviews for London’s West End: The night of the iguana & The Lehman trilogy

The goal, Covid willing — which it wasn’t — was for me to be in London this January of 2022, writing brand new posts. Instead, I’m catching up on the backload of half written ones that were waiting to be finished. Yes, I know, I’m seriously behind in these blog posts, as I’m writing this 2019 one over two years after the fact  …. Remember when we used to tell ourselves that if only we had a few weeks off with nothing to do how we’d catch up on all those tasks we never got to… yah it wasn’t that….

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One of the great joys of the London stage is that at some point or another, like broadway, the great and renowned actors of the screen will want to tread the boards, and this is where they often do it… but at a way that offers far more affordable ticket prices than in what you’d pay in NYC (let’s hear it for government subsidy of the arts!). A while back I talked about the play Sweat, which I saw in London in 2019 starring a lesser known but highly recognizable actress of American movies and TV, Martha Plimpton.

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While she may not be as well known as others, she represents the modern generation of a Hollywood royalty family that stretches back to the 1930’s.

In this post I’m going to talk about two other plays I saw in London back in the summer of 2019 starring famous actors that till then I’d only ever seen on the screen.

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On August 21 of 2019 I went to see Clive Own play the leading role in the classic Tennessee Williams stage play Night of the Iguana (later made into a film staring Richard BurtonAva Gardner, and Deborah Kerr)

E471B7B9-DBDE-451C-8957-02929837B7D3.jpgAnyway, Clive Owen… drool. Granted, he’s not one of my favorite actors but he has always had a sort of bad boy smoldering sexuality that is undeniable, and this was a great play for him to be in… because the lead calls for just that sort of character.

Overall the play was good, his performance was VERY good … although there were a few places in the show where I guess he got distracted or something because he dropped out of character and resorted to just delivering lines (what’s referred to in the business — I have more than a few professional friends who work in it — as phoning it in) but for the most part he was so good that I was able to forget I was watching a play, and instead felt I was watching events as they happened.

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When you first came in to find your seats there was a soundtrack of jungle noises playing in the background and all around us, and there was no fire curtain hiding the stage. Initially I thought that who ever was in charge of the stage design required a pat on the back, although I ultimately decided it wasn’t quite as amazing as they seemed to think it was (I’ll get to that later). The stage held a handful of broken down huts which we soon learned were hotel rooms in a jungle atmosphere, that was supposed to be located up on a mountainside overlooking the ocean. Those steps leading up from the orchestra pit, in the picture above, was how new characters, who had supposedly arrived by boat climbed up the side of the mountain from the beach to said hotel …. and we who sat in the ‘house’ were supposed to be the ocean view they spent most of their time looking out at when not looking at each other…

Before the show started, as those of you who read all my theater posts know that I regularly do, I was taking photos of the empty stage from the vantage of my seat — to show where I was seated and a sense of the theater space, when staff stopped me saying it was “protected”(??). Thing is, it was exactly the same stage shown in the advertising images located out in front of the theater… If my concern was the set design rather than where my seat was relative to the stage, I could have just taken photos of those ads … so I found this prohibition needless, and a bit bizarre (kind of like worrying about your daughters chastity when she’s already pregnant). Not to mention their whole approach of dealing with it was just “unfriendly.” There wasn’t anything all that AMAZING or innovative about the set, other than the fake rock cliff towards the back of the stage… in fact it reminded me a GREAT DEAL of the Louisiana part of Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney … so really nothing innovative of worthy of trying to protect. (And I wasn’t the only one they tried to stop… staff was running around and yelling at a bunch of different people who had taken out their cell phones to take a snap.)

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Anyway, As you can tell from the above photo my seat was VERY good, 7th row almost dead center relative to the stage… and… looking up you can see ….

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I was about a row or two in front of the balcony overhang, so there was no reverb issues with the sound as it bounced around hard surfaces. And this really good ticket was purchased last minute — as in the day before — at a discount from the Txts booth in Leicester Square that I’ve spoken about REPEATEDLY.

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Right before intermission a rain storm broke out as part of the show (the story being located in the tropics), and rather than it just being sound and light effects, there was actual rain falling all over the stage. And I’m not talking just a line of water at the back of the stage either … Clive Owen stood IN it and got drenched by it (yes objectification was real — did I not mention DROOL and how sexy he is) … during intermission I walked up to the stage and you could hear the water dripping off it… not sure how they pull that off without water damage to the stage or folks slipping…. THAT would be interesting to know about but there was nothing visible from the house to answer that question….

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The Next show I saw is one that I’m HAPPY to say is one of the first NYC productions to be reopening in the time of Covid — a limited run that will then travel to L.A. and then on to San Francisco…. and I STRONGLY suggest buying tickets for it if you can.

This was, The National Theater’s production of The Lehman Trilogy. Yep its about THOSE Lehmans, the three brothers who came to America to find their fortune and ended up creating the Lehman Brothers firm, the investment bank that became one of the leaders of the financial world, until it ultimately collapsed, and almost took the entire global economy with it….

 —– Tangent on the collapse of Lehman Brothers
As a former business school professor I think it’s important to note that the collapse happened after the three generations of family control had been handed over to a corporate bureaucracy. Anyone with an understanding of successful multigenerational family owned companies knows that this is a regular process. Companies of this sort are created by an individual — or as in this case a group of siblings, who then usually pass control onto their children. This only happens after he/or she, or they, have personally trained this next generation over the course of their childhoods to takeover the business… usually having them do odd jobs of increasing importance up through their adulthoods that are intended to prepare them and imbue within them a deeply understood awareness of how and why the business is successful. This 2nd generation however tends to not then go on to train their own children as deeply in the ways of the business — often because they resented what their own parents forced them to go through — and instead allow the kids to choose for themselves if they want to be involved — which usually they don’t… and these kids even if one or two of them DOES show interest, by the 3rd generation opt to hand over control to business school types — folks who almost never spent a day working in any factory, let alone choosing to train up individuals who came up through the ranks of THAT company — sending over talented employees off to business school for instance, with the understanding that they were being prepared for management positions (and even if they were they might not have the sort of FAMILY kinship required to keep them in the fold once so invested in). Instead, the heirs of the fortune tend to be disinterested, and prefer to just reap the benefits of the family money and hand over full control to business school graduates with no personal investment in the future prosperity of the company — and once that happens it’s fairly rare for the company to continue to be what it once was, so that at that point decrease of influence to the point of collapse becomes commonplace.  —– end of tangent

That said, the play is not about that collapse and how or why it happened, rather it’s about family, tradition, and legacy, and as such is far more Universal and meaningful. Because the brothers were Jewish immigrants to the United States, recently arrived from Eastern Europe, it helps to bring more depth to the story if you know a little bit about what those traditions are…. although it’s not obligatory. While watching the show I found myself explaining things to the girl seated next to me who was Asian and had no idea why they kept doing things like reaching up to place a kiss on a doorpost, or broke into some Hebrew (praying).

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My cousin, who used to work for one of the major theatrical charities in London, the Mousetrap foundation — they use the profits from London’s longest running hit (excluding a gap for Covid, it’s been playing nonstop since 1952), to introduce school groups from lower income parts of town to the joys of live theater, and as such she continues to stay up to date on what the best shows are in town, and she strongly suggested this one (although she warned they might be fully sold out). As such, I so wanted to see it that I did something I almost never do, and bought the tickets full price… (I tried to get them at TXTs but they laughed at me. I had to buy it at the theater’s box office, and was able to find a good single seat a few weeks out, the week they were due to close).

This left me worried at the time because the day before I was supposed to go London was in the low 90’s F (33.9ºC)  and the day I was scheduled to go was supposed to be as bad if not worse (in fact that day London and Orlando Florida were having the SAME WEATHER, that’s just WRONG). Thank you global warming …

This might not seem like a big deal to average American Theater goer, but the theaters in London, for the most part are NOT BUILT for hot days — especially the older ones — They have limited if any ventilation and most do NOT have any air conditioning. I am one of those people who is great when the temp is in the 60º’s but suffers horribly in anything above 75º — and these theaters with the lights and the people can heat up into the high 80º’s on a hot day; as such, I am incapable of ‘enjoying’ myself in an overheated room… especially ones with no ventilation… and these old historic theaters in London fall into that category. Normally, I buy tickets a day or so in advance, and know what the weather forecast will be, but in this case I had to buy it over two weeks in advance, so there was no way to know.

I took the tube to get there and that had been like a freaking oven, and then I was running late so I had to run to get to the theater, all of which left me radiating heat. So I was SERIOUSLY worried that the heat in the theater would make me feel so sick that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the show, so I was thrilled to discover that the Piccadilly Theatre in London has air-conditioning! Not only that but it was set to keep the room comfortably cool.  I could hear the system going on and off, and every once in a while the room would heat up just enough that I would start to feel uncomfortable, only to hear the fans comeback on and feel the temperature drop just enough for me to stay focused on the show instead of the sickening heat. (Unlike US theaters, they never over did it so that you wished you’d brought a sweater to the theater in the middle of summer.)

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I can’t remember why, but for some reason I was running really late, and was worried they wouldn’t let me in — British theaters can be sticklers about late comers especially if you were sitting front and center like I was going to be — as always I got a GOOD ticket, that put me just off center and maybe 7 rows from the state, but to my luck …. when I arrived there was a huge line of people standing outside waiting to pick up their tickets –even though the play was supposed to have already started, so I was just damn lucky. I arrived so late however that I wasn’t able to do my normal photo of me holding my ticket and showing the stage in front of me; the photo above of me in front of the theater was from after the show was over — hence why it was already dark. Again a photo I would normally do BEFORE the show started.

The Play is based on a Novel, by Italian author Stefano Massini, available in translation

All that said…. This was quite possibly one of the very best most amazing plays I’ve EVER seen in my 58 odd years of regularly attending the theater!!!! It was an acting Tour De Force … all of the 185 roles were played by three British character actors, excluding the final scene when the family no longer controlled the company and suddenly there’s a collection of faces we’d not seen before… Let me repeat that almost ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE separate roles, including men and women, which up until the final scene of the play are performed, by only THREE MEN …. and every single role is clear and distinct. If you’ve never respected the title of character actor, you will now. These are not movie stars who are basically the same character in every film or TV show you’ve ever seen them in, these are ACTORS. (This is why saying you need to be gay to play gay is kind of problematic, and diminishes the craft of acting… actually obliterates it. Keep going in that direction and from now on no one will have to develop their craft because you’ll have to be the thing in order to be allowed to play the thing.)

Imelda Staunton, Adrian Lester, Damian Lewis and more at The Lehman Trilogy  West End premiere | WhatsOnStage
Left to right: Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley   That said, this is NOT my Image, borrowed from: https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/imelda-staunton-adrian-lester-damian-lewis-lehman_49127.html

So the famous actors I got to see were: (left to right) Ben Miles, to be honest this guy sinks into his characters so fully that I totally didn’t recognize him till I checked his imdb. He’s one of those British Actors that Americans are less familiar with. Of all the shows he was in, I think we in the states would most easily recognize him as having played the part of Peter Townsend, the boyfriend of Princess Margaret in Netflix’s international hit, The Crown), that she was having an affair with, and who when he left his wife the corporation kept finding excuses to keep her from marrying him, until he finally gave up and married someone else.

Simon Russell Beale (the guy in the middle) tends to show up in the sort of historical stuff the BBC is best known for, Americans would best know him as having been on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful and as the Baker’s father in the star studded movie version of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods, with Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick.

The actor to the right is probably the one most Americans will most easily recognize, although odds are you never knew his name. The man has been in a LOT of things, He’s currently the Archbishop in Hulu’s The Great, about Russia’s Cathrine the Great; He provides the voice of Pogo (the talking chimp) in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, he played Elliott Schwartz in the classic show Breaking Bad, was Nigel Nesbitt in the series Suits (best known as Meghan Markle’s claim to fame before she married Prince Harry), along with a bunch of other roles in popular shows and movies. In fact in the Lehman Brothers Adam Godley did a one character in a scene towards the middle of the show that I will never be able to forget and I wish I could hit the rewind to see over and over and figure out how he did it; the man aged right in front of us from young to a wizened corpse on the table, and did it so believably that the audience couldn’t but break into a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

Anyway, if you ever have a chance to see this show, I strongly suggest it, even more if its with these actors.

 

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