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Review: PRELUDES, Southwark Playhouse

Review: PRELUDES, Southwark Playhouse

Review: PRELUDES, Southwark Playhouse Although the West End is still waiting for a production of Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his more recent creation, Preludes, has its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse.

The piece is described as "a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff". This is apt; it's somewhere between a musical and a song cycle, the music itself being a fusion of Rachmaninoff's piano pieces, electronic instrumentation and the meandering melodies and expression of contemporary musical theatre. The piano playing of Tom Noyes (who represents one half of Rachmaninoff) is sublime throughout.

Preludes explores a little-discussed period of Rachmaninoff's life. The young composer is enjoying great success. His first symphony is commissioned when he is just 20. However, the commissioned symphony is much criticised, prompting Rachmaninoff's creativity and sense of personhood to retreat into a pit of anxiety, paranoia and despair. Through the eyes of Rachmaninoff himself and his fiancée (and cousin) Natalya, Preludes depicts this experience and the hypnotherapy by which Rachmaninoff sought to treat his symptoms.

Malloy's piece is wonderful. Formally, the musical's casual hops through time provide intrigue and perhaps some insight into the drifting and listless state of debilitating illness. Many of the lyrics are insightful and hugely moving. With happily increased discussions surrounding the dangers of mental health and the need to maintain healthy neurology, the telling of this story from 1900 is timely.

Emphasising this point and varying the piece's tone are a series of fun anachronisms. Chekhov wears Converse, and introduces himself with a warm extension of his hand. Rachmaninov indicates his repute with a stunned "I know".

Norton James also brings some surrealism to the piece, with his performance as Rachmaninoff's friend Chaliapin - and it really is a performance. His resonant vocals demonstrate great skill and his joy is infectious: this classical singer seems to enjoy music - and life - far more than the protagonist.

Georgia Louise plays Natalya beautifully. Her brutally honest, flawed and consistent presence is the most moving thing within Preludes and within this production. Louise's solo performance of "Natalya" and her piano duet with Rach are particularly poignant. As the couple sit behind the piano, the intimacy, synchronicity and romance - of music and of life - blossom.

Given the delicacy of this moment, it is a shame that much of the script and lyrics provide a limited impression of mental illness, perhaps somewhat more of Rachmaninoff's era than can be desired. Keith Ramsay plays Rach. His singing is stunning; it's energetic and moving, and hugely controlled in the wild extremes of his emotions. However, his physicality and particularly his facial expressions are affected. Perhaps he is already playing for the bigger theatre this piece probably deserves.

Although a single element and performer give this impression, Ramsay is often onstage and this musical predominantly deals with Rachmaninoff's attempts to build himself up from his breakdown. It seems a that script and performance have here combined to produce something removed from the inherently human condition of ill mental health.

That said, Rebecca Caine gives a selfless and highly intelligent performance as Rachmaninoff's hypnotherapist. Her sensitivity and silence drink in Rach's troubles, before her characteristically glorious vocals bolster his musical talent in a somewhat clumsy but apt metaphor for the careful untangling of therapy. Perhaps overshadowed by her own musical talent, Caine's acting has been underrated.

Formally, the piece's jumps through time result in a thoughtful and complicated story. Ste Clough's choreography is imaginative and always heightens the drama without distracting. Jordan Li-Smith's musical direction of this excellent score is worthy of mention, as is Alex Sutton's simple, but tremendously effective, staging. Christopher Nairne's lighting design is striking and highly appropriate for the piece.

Overall, though, it is hard to get beyond certain elements of Preludes and of this production. The ideas onstage are perhaps less clear than in the programme notes. The piece leaves a varied impression, with some truly elevated moments of music and of the human experience.

Preludes at Southwark Playhouse until 12 October

Read Alex Sutton's guest blog

Photo Credit: Scott Rylander

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