Thursday, 3 May 2018

Theatre review: Mood Music

It takes a while for plays to get commissioned, written and programmed, so we haven’t seen a major theatre touch directly on the Kevin Spacey story yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Given the hamfisted way it dealt with the aftermath, is it particularly likely that theatre will be the Old Vic itself? In the meantime, Spacey’s successor Matthew Warchus has said there is a certain element of acknowledging the subject in his programming Mood Music, even if Joe Penhall’s new play touches more on the wider subject of powerful men’s treatment of younger women, than the specific one of a powerful man’s treatment of younger men. In any case even that’s arguably not what Mood Music’s really about: Up-and-coming singer Cat (Seána Kerslake) is thrilled to find out that industry legend Bernard (Ben Chaplin) will be producing her first album. He was, in fact, just looking for a female singer to take lead vocals on an album he’d written, but agrees to work on her songs instead.

By the time the record’s released, though, the songwriting credit lists both their names, and an international hit single in particular becomes a bone of contention when it wins an Ivor Novello Award, and Bernard tries to take sole credit for it.

Penhall’s play is a six-hander that’s roughly doled out into pairs: When the dispute is first raised the record company asks that both parties speak to therapists before resorting to legal action, and we see Cat tell her side of the story to Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave) and Maurice relate his to Ramsay (Pip Carter.) Circling around in the background are the lawyers, Seymour (Neil Stuke) and Miles (Kurt Egyiawan,) waiting for their moment. Hildegard Bechtler’s design, while not recreating the in-the-round configuration the Old Vic sometimes uses, has turned the Stalls into a thrust, with most of the action taking place on a central white stage but characters sometimes retiring to observe from a box far in the background.

As well as hearing Cat and Bernard’s versions of the story we also flash back to see them working together in the studio, in a relationship that is for the most part friendly and constructive. Penhall is clearly most interested in the process of creating art, and while Cat is the more sympathetic character – although his success has come from genuine talent and charm, Bernard is also a liar, bully and narcissist, whose contempt for his collaborators even Ramsay readily admits borders on the psychopathic, and who's weaponised the idea of the creative genius who's above mundane concerns – the argument is certainly made that creator credit isn’t as simple as who put the notes and words on paper, and the song itself is ultimately collaborative. It’s evident in the production itself: I never really seem to warm to Penhall’s writing and the same was the case here, often making me feel the play isn’t really a great fit for such a large space, but Roger Michell’s staging is doing a lot of the work in making this an interesting evening and finding a way to make it feel at home there.

The story’s turn into one about possible sexual abuse is an odd one because that doesn’t seem really to be what the play’s about; but maybe the whole point is that both songwriters are so single-mindedly concerned with the music that it doesn’t occur to them that this is the real story. Cat is angry that her US tour was so traumatic she retreated into a self-induced drink-and-drugs coma, but has little thought for what the crew might have done to her while she was passed out until Vanessa digs deeper. The therapists turn the narrative that way, and later the lawyers use it as a bargaining tool (Stuke is of course representing Chaplin, they were the same person for a brief period in the mid-90s after all.) Mood Music is clever, and even if it didn’t quite grab me it does serve as a potential starting point for some interesting discussions.

Mood Music by Joe Penhall is booking until the 16th of June at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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