Ben Chaplin plays a successful record producer and Seána Kerslake an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who battle over creative pre-eminence in Joe Penhall’s new play. The roles make for good viewing: the unbelievable arrogance of Chaplin’s Bernard is as entertaining as the vulnerability of Kerslake’s character, Cat, is moving. And the contrast between their approaches to music, focusing on his obsession with “precision”, are dramatically effective. As their disagreements exacerbate tensions, and come to include undertones of sexual exploitation, the mood turns increasingly sour and the play comes to comment on our times. Given The Old Vic’s recent history, there’s piquancy to hear such issues here. But, although it isn’t Penhall’s fault – his big theme is who and how someone might own creativity – the topic of sexism in the arts is raised so obliquely it is discomforting.
The play is as much about the music industry as it is about the musicians. That this might excuse behaviour is offered as an explanation too many times. But Roger Mitchell’s direction and Hildegard Bechtler’s impressive set – with the stage reaching out well into the auditorium – make the connections between those making music and those behind the scenes clear. The creatives are overwhelmed, each having their own psychotherapist and their own lawyer. There are strong performances (from Pip Carter, Kurt Egyiawan, Jemma Redgrave and Neil Stuke), but all the characters are clearly there to prove points. A lot of what’s said – about artists and mental health or intellectual property and justice – is funny, a little of it thought provoking. Unfortunately, nearly all of it is predictable.
The writing, however, is stunning: the text has an impressive musicality of its own, conversations interweave and tone varies constantly. But, with depressing prescience, it’s all too easy to see what’s coming next. A flippant complaint from Cat is propelled into a criminal issue. That this is instigated and escalated by professionals who could potentially profit from her misery is an uncomfortable suggestion. There are some brave opinions expressed, alongside some pretty awful ones, and Penhall puts drama on the flesh of issues in a way that newspaper headlines can’t. But, despite its sharp subject matter, Mood Music is flat. For all the importance of these topics, the danger is that they don’t make good drama. For a general audience these trials and tribulations of the creative industries come close to solipsism; no matter how well Penhall vocalises this, it is a dreary sound.
Until 16 June 2018
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Another musical to plunder a band’s back catalogue, Sunny Afternoon uses the music of The Kinks to tell the story of this seminal Sixties band. The show is closer to its subjects than similar efforts, as the original story is by songwriter and star of the band, Ray Davies. Whether Davies’ proximity to the project is a good thing is an open question; the show has an authentic ring but leans towards bias. A big hit with Kinks fans at the Hampstead Theatre, where the production started life, the show’s move into West End will be a test of its wider appeal.
As the success of the band attests, this is an impressive list of hits to work with. Even those born the wrong side of the 60s will know many of the tunes. Adapting the songs for the stage is boldly done; an a cappella version of Days is particularly noteworthy. But pop songs and show tunes are different things and the switch to the stage isn’t entirely a success. Too many of the hits are nodded at and shoe horned in. Let’s just say I would rather buy a ‘best of’ album than a cast recording.
That said, I bet the cast recording is good, as the performances can’t be faulted – everyone involved seems to sing and play multiple instruments. The band is led by John Dagleish as Ray, who has an awful lot to do and creates an appealing central character somewhat against the odds. George Maguire is suitably energetic as his brother Dave, the world’s angriest guitar player. Ned Darrington and Adam Sopp, as band members Peter Quaife and Mick Avory, carve out roles for themselves well. There’s also a lovely part for Davies’ first wife, movingly drawn by writer Joe Penhall and performed with skill by Lillie Flynn. Director Ed Hall’s work is impeccable, creating time for exploring the whole band’s emotions, which makes the evening seem weightier than it really is.
Davies is a reluctant pop star and a miserable one too. It’s acknowledged that the woes of a celebrity puzzle most of us; they create little dramatic tension or sympathy. Amazingly, The Kinks were broke despite their success – yes, those pesky promoters and publishers are the villains. The talented Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams try hard as the toffs making money out of The Kinks but their characters aren’t three dimensional enough. More surprising is the poor depiction of Davies’ working-class father. Penhall’s book makes a stab at another story – Davies’ self-representation as a singer for the people, fighting for musical integrity. Though full of potential, claims made for the music depend on how much of a fan you are – which takes us back to square one.
Until October 2016
Photo by Dominic Clemence