The biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach that informs Nina Raine’s new play is interesting. And a star turn from Simon Russell Beale as the musical great makes this play entertaining. But, despite director Nicholas Hytner’s valiant efforts to tell the story, the playwright’s ambitions become a problem.
Raine and Russell Beale – he really is fantastic – make sure we enjoy a character both angry and vulnerable, with a sharp tongue and quick wit. An obsession with “order in all things” and his religiosity show a complex character. All good stuff. But the contrasts in Bach’s temperament find a too-fast parallel in discussions of his work.
The debate about life and art is held, noisily, with his sons – Wilhelm and Carl – composers moving into a new era and men living in their father’s shadow. But it’s the former, rather than a family drama, that is focused on. These sons almost disappear in the discussion Raine wants to start. And the ideas aren’t new or elaborated on particularly well. It’s only the sincerity in the delivery of the argument, from Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin, that makes any of this interesting.
There is more Raine starts to investigate – the idea that a great artist doesn’t have to be a good man. It’s a notion that seems common sense to me but is increasingly debated, so input is welcome. Bach’s family suffers from his obsessions with telling the truth. His wives most of all. There are strong performances from Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as Mrs Bach 1 & 2. Raine has written fulsome roles that make these scenes more successful.
Raine tries to mix the high-flown ideas on art with down-to-earth comments (mostly about weight), but the efforts feel like a gesture. Saying one of Bach’s Passions was received like a “turd in a tureen” gets a laugh… but too briefly. Bach & Sons does build in power, there are moving moments with Russell Beale’s uncanny ability to show his character aging. But all the discussions of music and meaning, counterpoint and chaos, end up close to platitudes. The result is a piece that is disappointingly one note.
I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person to have neither read nor seen the adventures of JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. Which might make blogging about the two plays that form a sequel a little foolhardy. Don’t curse me, but I’ve never been that bothered. And since the Potter corpus is an extensive one, my worry about joining in was whether I’d work out what was going on. Still, you can’t argue with a record nine Olivier awards. And, while my fears were not unfounded, they didn’t spoil a show that turned out to be lot of a fun.
With a successful #keepthesecrets campaign, I wouldn’t dare reveal plot points. And I wouldn’t want to, either, as the best thing here is the atmosphere: contagious enthusiasm and excitement in one of London’s biggest venues. And it’s a bit of relief to have to keep quiet. Those steeped in Potter lore might underestimate how complicated it is. Thankfully, as a coming-of-age adventure story, it is easy to keep up with. But I suffered for my ignorance: there was some nudging amongst the audience as they recognised favourite characters, a proper gasp at a revelation that left me baffled, and lots of jokes lost. The story is by Rowling herself. Abetted by Jack Thorne (credited for the script) and the show’s director John Tiffany, the plot thickens nicely and their combined efforts make this gripping stuff.
The show is satisfyingly theatrical. The magic illusions from Jamie Harrison are good and spaced out well. There are eye-catching effects, but nor is Tiffany scared of small touches – which takes confidence in such a big show – so props are minimal and the stage often bare. It’s clear you can do a lot with a swirling cape and this crew really works them. Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is first rate. Best of all is Imogen Heap’s music for the show, which adds pace and atmosphere.
Even I know that the original films have led to fame for several youngsters. The focus here is on the next generation, with Samuel Blenkin making an astonishing professional debut, showing natural comic skills. Theo Ancient is there to deliver the teenage angst and confusion that makes the whole affair relatable and moving – he is fantastic, too. As for those stepping into very big shoes: Jamie Glover takes the part of Harry, rising to the challenge of a play that is demanding of its cast. The theme of fatherhood and friendship is a thoughtful vein amongst the fun. This trio and the intimate scenes between them are the strongest. Where we move from wizardry to the “messy emotional world” – that’s when we get the real magic.