Sexual identity and classical music clash in a play which is less piano, more forte.

By: Apr. 19, 2024
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Review: THE BALLAD OF HATTIE AND JAMES, Kiln Theatre Somewhere in King’s Cross station, a middle-aged woman sits at a piano and plays an original piece with surprising fluency. There begins Samuel Adamson’s tumultuous tale of two teenage musical prodigies whose lives become thoroughly entangled.

Jumping between the years from the Seventies through to the near future, we follow Hattie (Sophie Thompson) and James (Charles Edwards) as they first properly meet as part of their schools’ joint production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (his favourite composer). There are instant sparks, like metal bashing on metal, as they clash over everything. Her posh, sarcastic demeanour rubs up against his dedicated and enthusiastic manner; she dismisses Britten and clings to Fanny Mendelson over anyone else, especially her limelight-hogging brother Felix. James assumes that he will be primo in their piano duet while Hattie has already bagged that position and while he prefers Ted Hughes, she’s a fan of his late wife Sylvia Plath who committed suicide soon after finding out about Hughes’ affair.

All this time-jumping and classical musing has echoes of Tom Stoppard and his recently staged Rock ‘n’ Roll. Neither he nor Adamson are above brazen displays of their erudite natures with the latter well known for his interpretation of the works of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Hattie and James’ heated conversations over the finer points of composition (whether F is better than F sharp major and where to put the semitone) provide an ocean of subtext and plenty of connecting tissue between two people who fall (and stay) in love before admitting that their sexual preferences lie elsewhere.

Despite being very close in their teenage years, the pair do not so much drift apart as are jolted into very different directions due to two almost-simultaneous events: James is accepted into the Royal College of Music while Hattie fails to get in and a tragic incident leads to a deep emotional chasm. As James’ career waxes and wanes, we watch Hattie fall into addiction before a sudden rise to fame. Their awkward attempts to forgive and reconcile over the rest of their lives are the basis for their most touching encounters.

A piano in the centre of Jon Bausor’s revolving stage is a sturdy, if unsubtle, metaphor to how the instrument dominates the conversations between the central pair and becomes the third wheel in this unconventional and platonic relationship. Suzette Llewellyn plays all the characters in orbit around Hattie and James including their first piano teacher Madame Schultz, James’ stern stepmother, Hattie’s dipso mother and her gatekeeping wife Bo.

Director Richard Twymanare is not afraid to throw Sturm und Drang into the often combative conversations, something that’s very handy as Adamson’ Chekhovian instinct to over-foreshadow bogs down the first half. Some will find the final scene disappointingly overly sentimental, others a tearjerker of a goodbye. My hankie stayed where it was.

The Ballad Of Hattie and James continues at Kiln Theatre until 18 May.

Photo credit: Mark Senior


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