Mood Music at the Old Vic review ***

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Mood Music

Old Vic Theatre, 30th May 2018

Joe Penhall is definitely on to something with his new play Mood Music. But having found it I am not entirely sure that he then took the time to develop it. Well worth seeing, some fine performances and some thoughtful debate, but, after a terrific set up, a little disappointing and not as satisfying as, say, Blue/Orange.

Ben Chaplin plays louche, supercilious music producer Bernard, a part that could have been written for him, though it wasn’t as Old Vic favourite Rhys Ifans had to step down. Irish actor Seana Kerslake plays gifted young singer/songwriter Cat. From the get-go it is pretty obvious that something has gone horribly wrong between the hit making svengali and the precocious artist. They are each shadowed by psychiatrists, the diffident Ramsay for Bernard, (Pip Carter who played opposite Ben Chaplin in the original cast of Nina Raine’s superb Consent at the NT), and the similarly purposeful Vanessa played by Jemma Redgrave. They are subsequently joined on-stage by their respective entertainment lawyers, animated Seymour (Neil Stuke) and acute Miles (Kurt Egyiawan).

The combination of Bernard’s production experience and Cat’s talent and appeal is expected to produce a sure-fire hit. Initially there is no dialogue directly between the two, just between them and their respective professional advisers. The dialogue is temporally fluid with the thrust stage and design from Hildegard Bechtler, overhung with loads of mics, also shifting between music studio, consultation rooms and lawyers’ offices. When we finally get flashbacks to the beginning of Cat and Bernard’s working relationship we see there were some signs of affections and musical appreciation and mutual learning. As Bernard gets to work on “improving” Cat’s songs the musical boundaries blur and the “ownership” of the creative ideas is confused.

Bernard is plainly an egotistical, sexist bully locked in the past whose musical Midas touch is fading. Cat worships her amateur musician father, is warily truculent and won’t be pushed around. Even so Bernard slowly undermines her and her work claiming it as his own. The direction of travel in terms of the relationship is predictable, though still very illuminating, and made more fascinating by not being too black and white. Bernard, at least in Ben Chaplin’s shoes is not irredeemably evil, though he comes pretty close and is blissfully unaware of the damage he does to Cat, whilst Cat herself, thanks to Ms Kerslake’s acting skill, is not completely sympathetic and certainly not a helpless victim. This is smart writing as you might expect from Mr Penhall.

The relationship between art and life and the wellspring of the creative process is a theatrical staple. Putting this in the more contemporary context of popular music, (rather than writing), makes for a less academic experience than some classic plays which plough this furrow. The economics of composition and performance are also highlighted. Modern music seems to unite the age old artistic divide between creator and performer. This shows us that this is often an illusion. The play has obviously been made more relevant as the scale of male abuse of female artists, notably in contemporary film-making, has been laid bare.

I liked the structure of the play with the interweaving dialogue, “musical’ if you will, and Roger Michell’s direction served this admirably, as he always does (he directed Consent brilliantly). So what’s the Tourist’s beef? Well having set up the arguments we didn’t really move on. Just around and in between them. At a couple of hours or so the play didn’t outstay its welcome but it might have been more effective with some dislocation or shift in perspectives. The pace was quick-fire enough but apart from the scene at the awards ceremony, the uncomfortable height of Bernard’s boorishness, the drama didn’t really branch out. Still Ben Chaplin is magnetic, Sean Kerslake is a genuine real talent (as she plays a real talent) and there are cracking lines and insight.

 

 

 

Pressure at the Park Theatre review ***

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Pressure

Park Theatre, 26th April 2018

I had high hopes for Pressure. I have said before that the Park Theatre has a knack of mounting a wide array of productions, which, on paper at least, sound interesting, though execution can be variable. If I am honest Pressure, initially, wasn’t one of them. But the reviews from previous performances in Edinburgh and Chichester and the presence as writer, and performer, of David Haig, and the Park’s always jolly atmosphere, reeled me in. When it transpired that the production was transferring to the West End, (the Ambassador’s Theatre from, in a nod to its content, the 6th June), I confess to feeling inwardly smug that I had got in early, along with the full houses which the Park has secured.

Talking of smug, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, there is a faint air of the self-satisfied about Mr Haig’s performances. Most recently I have seen him play the arrogant, borderline racist Dr Robert Smith in the Young Vic’s revival of Joe Penhall’s marvellous play Blue/Orange alongside some blokes called Daniel Kaluuya and Luke Norris who you might know. Let us hope Mr Penhall’s latest offering, Mood Music, at the Old Vic matches this. He also played the enigmatic Player in the said Old Vic’s recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both cases, and in some of his telly roles, he nails down the patronising pomposity of a certain type of middle-aged Brit expert, whilst revealing any vulnerability or desperation that might lie behind the surface.

I am sure that, outside work, he could not be more different, though his writing, the text of Pressure is intimidatingly exact in terms of directions, suggests otherwise. Regardless, what I can say is that when he gets his teeth into a character there are few more stirring sights than Mr Haig in full flow. So if I tell you that he has written a dramatic account of the real life contribution of meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, to the D Day invasion on June 6th 1944, it will likely not come as too much of a surprise. GC Stagg, on this account, was a dour, uncompromising Scot, who staked his reputation on convincing the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, here played by Malcolm Sinclair, to first hold off, and then go ahead with the invasion plans, despite apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the opinion of his breezy American counterpart Colonel Irving P Krick (Philip Cairns).

It would have made a gripping black and white film in the 1950s or even a one off TV drama today. And that, in part, is something of its problem. It is a powerful story, but, once the die is cast, it is theatrically predictable and Mr Haig presents it that way. The pressure on GC Stagg is, compounded by his wife’s troubled pregnancy. The isobars on the charts measure pressure. We see the pressure mount on Eisenhower as he makes his fateful decisions. There are no real surprises in what the characters do or say and there are times when they verge on cliche.

On the other hand Mr Haig has wisely introduced a major female role in the form of Kay Summersby, the aide-de-camp to Eisenhower. She is played with clip-vowelled exactitude by Laura Rodgers, who I admired in Rules for Living at the Rose Kingston and Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, (a play that continues to linger long in the mind). Malcolm Sinclair as Eisenhower is also impressive though I have no idea what the man himself was like, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Director John Dove has collaborated with Mr Haig before on his most famous play (and film) My Boy Jack, based on the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his son, so doesn’t mess about with Mr Haig’s story.

I appreciate that I am sounding a bit sniffy about Pressure. I don’t mean to be. It is, in its own conventional way, very effective and David Haig turns in an exemplary performance. If this sounds like your sort of thing then don’t hesitate to get down to the Ambassador’s.