Review: MOOD MUSIC, Old Vic
Gendered power dynamics, the commodification of art, and abuse in the creative industries: Joe Penhall's new play certainly feels of the moment, and there's a particular frisson in seeing such subject matter explored at the Old Vic, which is dealing with the legacy of Kevin Spacey. Yet a potent topic remains stubbornly discursive in this rather circular piece.
Bernard is a middle-aged, hit-making producer, styled like an old-school rocker; he certainly has a Jagger-sized ego. He's made a commercially successful record with young, emerging artist Cat, but the pair - contractually bound to do a second album - are now in heated conflict over who deserves songwriting credit.
That conflict is fractured through two lawyers and two therapists. Penhall's piece was, in part, inspired by his experience of making Sunny Afternoon with the Kinks, both witnessing and experiencing the bitterly combative side of artistic collaboration.
Even trauma becomes monetised - though Penhall's argument that artists are inherently damaged isn't really convincingly made. However, he does demonstrate the oxymoron that is the "music business": something personal and heartfelt shackled to the coldly professional and market-ruled.
At one point in the increasingly nasty negotiations, Cat's lawyer triumphantly seizes on her maltreatment and exploitation during a relentless US tour - which possibly extended to sexual abuse - simply as a bargaining chip to leverage a better deal.
The play also illustrates how the more free-flowing creative industries are vulnerable to abuse. Alone in the recording studio, we see Bernard - who Cat has long admired - chipping away at her self-esteem so he can gain control, bullying her into making her songs sound more like his, and then manipulating her response: why does she need credit or awards to validate her?
A gleeful Bernard revels in such tactics when showing off to his "people", explaining how women don't ask for as much, or don't like to make a fuss, and - tellingly - saying that he needed to "use" a female singer on this album, but "I am the music". The record company seems to agree, continuing to provide a steady stream of artists and protecting their troublesome money-maker.
However, the drama is kept at arm's length by Penhall's structure, in which most of the action is reported. The most riveting scenes by far are those glimpses of the recording process and a car-crash Ivor Novello Award acceptance speech, during which Bernard muscles Cat off the stage.
Otherwise, it's distanced via therapeutic analysis and increasingly convoluted legal wrangling. Bernard speaks of the necessary black hole in a song that allows the listener to insert their own experience, but the play never leaves space for interpretation, nor does it immerse us in the action in a way that might induce empathy - so crucial when many are still suspicious of the need for #MeToo.
Hildegard Bechtler's set adds to that distancing. The giant thrust features carefully arranged instruments (sadly not played much) and chairs, with suspended mics above, and upstage a coolly lit box that offers album cover-esque tableaux.
Oddly, much of the language in the second half is around death or destruction, indicating a major challenge to the system. But - unlike The Writer - Roger Michell's production remains essentially safe, neither offering a provocation to the traditional structures of theatre, nor to the industry it depicts.
Bernard is almost a cartoon bastard, so completely sociopathic in his inability to understand others or extend them any sort of human kindness. The extremity means he never feels dangerous in any real way.
He's also - and these are weighted choices by a male playwright and director - the most fun character on stage by far, the witty, charming, un-PC bad boy who has all the best lines. It's queasily close to celebratory; at the very least morally ambiguous.
Ben Chaplin - who replaced Rhys Ifans in the role - is vividly charismatic, while Seána Kerslake does sterling work with the less engaging Cat, who's stymied by an unbelievable naivety (she's making a commercial album, but doesn't want fame; and she clings to a saintly portrait of her late father, symbol of musical authenticity).
Jemma Redgrave, Pip Carter, Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are effective in more reactive roles - Stuke as Bernard's lawyer, in particular, hints at the nasty tactics employed by those who protect such men.
Yet there's a lingering ambivalence towards much-needed systemic change, perhaps stemming from Penhall's personal views. In an interview with The Times, he argued that mitigating "inappropriate behaviour from people with dysfunctional backgrounds" means you end up with bland rock stars like Coldplay.
So, is it worth sacrificing the wellbeing of artists - particularly female artists - in the pursuit of greatness? That's a long-standing reactive argument, one that would at least give Penhall's play a bold stance. Instead, it skirts around these searing topics, tantalisingly close to striking a resonant chord.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan