King Hedley II (Theatre Royal Stratford East, London)
Verdict: Lenny does the hustle
The Lehman Trilogy (Piccadilly Theatre)
Verdict: A theatrical landmark
Two types of hustler ply their trade on the London stage this week. Spivs and bankers. Lenny Henry is the super-fly spiv in August Wilson's drama set in 1980s Pittsburgh. Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are the millionaire bankers in Stefano Massini's epic about the rise and fall of the Lehman family.
Compare and contrast? Well, Henry's character Elmore lives by his wits on the streets in an American black suburb. Wherever he lays his hat, that's his home.
As for the Lehman brothers, they also lived by their wits — first as middlemen for the cotton plantations of Alabama, and then in the dealing rooms of Wall Street. Wherever they laid their bets, that was their collateralised debt obligation.
Lenny Henry reminded me of an ageing Huggy Bear from Seventies TV series Starsky & Hutch. He shows up in Pittsburgh's Hills district in pursuit of sixtysomething former nightclub singer Ruby (Martina Laird). She's the estranged mother of the play's title character King Hedley (Aaron Pierre), who's trying to get his life back after being jailed for killing a man who slashed his face.
Spiv and polish: Lenny Henry and Martina Laird sparkle in King Hedley II
One of his ten plays charting black history through the decades of the 20th century, Wilson writes terrific parts for actors, and Pierre rides his role like he's jockeying a mustang.
Henry, though, has the cooler part as the pensionable spiv who'd sell you a watch, handgun or grandma, but he plays within himself, wary of caricature. No danger of that from Leo Wringer, who revels in his role as a religious crackpot; or Laird, who cuts a gorgeous, down-at-heel diva desperate to make peace with her past.
The problem is the play is way too long (three-and-a-half hours!) and by the end, we tire of the people we've come to love.
Still, Nadia Fall's production is as fine a rendition of the play as you can hope for. It looks and sounds terrific on Peter McKintosh's tumbledown set of clapboard houses. Fall is having a stunning first season as artistic director at Stratford East.
The Lehman Trilogy is also three- and-a-half hours long, but my god it packs a lot in. Directed by Sam Mendes, and first seen at the National Theatre last year, it covers the 150-year history of the New York bank that collapsed in 2008.
It starts with Jewish emigre Hayum Lehmann opening a tiny drapery in the Montgomery Alabama of 1844. Joined by his brothers, they and their sons steadily diversify into cotton, manufacturing, railways, politics and investment banking.
The only thing in short supply in this breathless historical legend is emotional empathy. But as they don't say in Yiddish 'empathy shempathy, who needs empathy when you've got business?'
Besides, business more than drives us through a trail of calamities including burnt crops, civil war, world wars, the Wall Street Crash and, finally, the financial apocalypse of 2008. Es Devlin's design is nothing less than imperious, placing the Lehmans in 19th-century suits inside a swish, modern glass office. Even more impressive are the actors. Stout Russell Beale covers the astute and cuddly brothers, handsome Miles does the hardnosed ones, and lanky Godley takes care of the peacemaking, solutions men.
Running through the years — and around the stage — like clockwork, their performance is a high-wire act, endurance test and feat of memory. But special mention must be made of pianist Candida Caldicot who plays a score that runs throughout as though this was a silent film.
So, even if the story is more interested in money than the human cost of slavery and chaingangs, this show is undoubtedly a theatrical landmark. Bet on it.
Open air season