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FringeReview UK 2019


Daniele Tarento in association with Citric Productions

Genre: American Theater, Biographical Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Southwark Playhouse Large Studio


Low Down

Directed by Alex Sutton, costumes and set designed by Rebecca Brower with a set as piano lid involving a baby grand and two keyboards: with a light-show by Christopher Nairne. It’s amplified in Andrew Johnson’s sound design, choreography by Ste Clough and musical director Jordan Li-Smith who takes one of the keyboards with Billy Bullivant at the other. Tom Noyes plays the piano as ‘Rachmaninoff’.


Rachmaninoff’s 24 Preludes aside, the title suggests the starts of something, and starts is what we get, teasingly false starts, starts that continue later as the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 opens the show with those pounding C minor chords suspended: which continue like a DNA crashing through to the end. Starts with the way we’re confronted with a dream-set of memories as new gambits to deal with breakdown.

Dave Malloy’s known for his soaring teleologies – this time 1900 expressed in Preludes through the lens of now, rationalising dreams with a 21st century capacity to rave thrown in. Malloy does Russian.

Indeed the author of what Malloy fashioned for Broadway as Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 – Tolstoy – makes an appearance. Everyone does: Chekhov, Chaliapin, Tchaikovsky, Tsar Nicholas II; and it’s mostly true.

We’re in the 27-year-old Rachmaninoff’s head, played by ‘Rach’ a tousled Keith Ramsay – who looks close to snaps of the late-adolescent composer. Well except the kohl and when he’s trying derangement as a fashion item, rather than his quiet affecting eddies. He sings an ardent tenor, ideally suited for his double role. ‘Rach’ at one level’s a bratty Broadway boy dreaming he’s Rachmaninoff; there’s sudden contemporary references, particularly by jet-setting Chaliapin.

So it’s 1900, just: Rach’s three years into a writing block, after the disastrous 1897 premiere of his Symphony No. 1 conducted by a drunk Glazunov (he of The Seasons and symphonies). And Dr Dahl (Rebecca Caine) will help him out of it, via hypnosis. ‘Your Day’ a duet where Rach comes round and round is a strong opener. When Caine sings you really hear her mezzo warmth and power.

Malloy’s clever at dovetailing well-known Rachmaninoff songs and cheekily writing his own melodies to them: cue ‘Lilacs’ and lilacs strew the stage from now, sung by Rach to Natalya.

Natalya’s his helpmeet piano-teaching cousin (Georgia Louise) whom he had to have the Tsar’s permission to marry (a delicious scene awaits), aided by a rumbustious double-act of Chaliapin (Norton James, a superbly bullish baritione) and Steven Serlin as Chekhov: ‘Ho-Ho’ is a folksy dissection of a dead kulak as Constant Lambert once expressed Stravinsky’s attempts in Les Noces. True here. Then Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, the Tsar, Glazunov….

Malloy’s music morphs out of Rachmaninoff, and on-stage synths, in attractive numbers where each singer-actor’s spotlit. There’s no sense of distorted Rach though, like Dana’s ‘Never going to fall in love again’, that 1972 take on Symphony No. 2. It’s Malloy’s voice playing idiom.

Yet again Southwark Playhouse – in its Large Studio – produces a stunning vehicle, the most gorgeous production values I’ve seen here, alone worthy of the plushest West End stage with Rebecca Brower’s costumes and set: gleaming piano lid, black parquet, on which is perched a baby grand. Each side another pair of synch-keyboards produces all the sonics. There’s an outstanding light-show by Christopher Nairne rigged with neon strips flaring colours and patterns throughout, with a de-rangement of effects that match Rachmaninoff’s murky glamour. There’s a stunning moment when the Rach and Glazunov figures are raised up prone; gold tinsel floats down framed by blue neon.

Directed by Alex Sutton whose essay on depression fronts the programme, it’s a raid on the articulate by our imagination. If we dream in neon anyway. It’s amplified in Andrew Johnson’s sound design, tight choreography (the stage itself diminutively expressed on that piano lid) by Ste Clough; and musical direction by Jordan Li-Smith who takes one keyboard with Billy Bullivant at the other.

Tom Noyes plays the piano as ‘Rachmaninoff’. With brio, even when cut off: it’s classily expressive, filtered through a stage-brittle soundworld. We get incidentally the prancing D major Op 23/4, the mystically numinous Op 32/12 in G # minor, the ominous alla marcia G minor Op 23/5 that pianists from Hofmann Horowitz and Richter espoused so ‘that’ C # minor didn’t get another work-out. But that’s there too, a couple of early Moments Musicaux when Rach’s depressed and explains them to Natalya (well, to us, in case we’re lost); and above all the Concerto No. 2 that got written after hypnosis breaks through terrifying its creator. He doesn’t know it yet.

After we’re plunged into a first hypnosis, a narrative rounds back to that point as Caine and Ramsay circle each other’s minds, then a series of vignettes. It works superbly for the first half, where Chaliapin cajoles, Chekhov medicates with sanity, avuncular and still youthful, Natalya makes anxious gestures in ‘Vocalise’ and it’s not Rachmaninoff’s melody. Then Tchaikovsky back in 1893 quizzes Rach hard in Malloy’s vision; and after ‘Tchaikovsky’s Child’s Song’ finally leaves him to the slow movement of his dream-concerto and Louise – a vertiginous lyric soprano – is left to her attractive eponymous song ‘Natalya’.

Tchaikovsky was in truth a huge champion of the 20-year-old before his own early death. Serlin with his light snarl of a baritone inhabits these with a neat mix of profundity and caricature of certain mannerisms that morphs most of all as the disconcerting one: Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s more dismissive than anyone else further battering Ramsay’s Rach. He’s a charmingly distrait Tsar and less charmingly manic-drunk Glazunov too. Serlin’s gradual derangement of characters is the one linear strand of this work, which jumps back and forth with sudden contemporary references before sidling back to 1900.

Oh and Scriabin’s nodded to, someone who really did see in synaesthesia and reckoned himself a kind of god: so why not bring him in, instead of leaving him dangling for the cognicenti?

James’ Chaliapin gets spotlit in the second half: full visual psychedelics in ‘Loop’ where he incarnates some Crowley-like beast – pure Scriabin this – before vanishing. It’s James’ great set-piece, overshadowing Act II.

I’m almost inclined to suggest with Moss Hart there is no Act II. Musically it’s rich, but bar certain numbers ‘Not Alone’ for the couple, the wonderful acid-trip drunkenness of Serlin’s Glazunov smashing up that symphony (first D minor chord only, but a lot) we get the affectingly touching flashback to Tsar II’s blessing the young couple with candles and a neat put-down. The ‘Hypnosis’ scene is far too long and the denouement doesn’t quite land so much as affectingly end with a denuding of everything. Finally Serlin’s touching fan of Rachmaninoff’s talks gently about Van Cliburn’s recording. But as for 50 Greatest Composers, find out.

I’m hooked though. We need more of this. There’s wonderful spectacle though not a robust enough rationale – dreams have powerful illogic – to make it all compelling. Yet there’s so much to admire here. It’s a show with a punch out of all proportion to its size, it looks like a West End beast though might baffle anyone not quite ready for something unique.

And there’s nothing remotely like this. There’s nothing remotely like Southwark Playhouse either, a musical-producing monster – to say nothing of the plays – that’s getting its own Elephant theatre soon. And we need it.