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Brighton Festival 2016

Anatomy Of The Piano (For Beginners)

Will Pickvance

Genre: Children's Theatre, Live Music

Venue: Brighton Dome Studio Theatre


Low Down

Got the piano bug? Yeah, me too, after seeing this delectable dissection of the upright and the bipedal. The ‘Beginners’ edition of Will Pickvance’s trilogy (and soon-to-become quadrilogy, I hear), which I had the pleasure of catching in the ever-conducive environs of the Dome Studio this Brighton Festival afternoon, is a fantastic foray into diverse and rarefied fields of understanding, touching on pretty much every topic under the stars. And boy can he play the piano.


The man at the piano, after welcoming us with a thunderous display of chromatic scales and really quite impressive twiddly plinky type stuff, settles on his stool and contorts his backbone like a primed jack-in-the-box to bring his face over his right shoulder, his eyes seeming to seek amongst us full of such mischief and glee as to render us in no doubt we’re about to be served up a splendid adventure. And the man’s name is Will.

We meet three characters along the way, aside from Will himself. Each is a historical composer, illustrated with wit in Tim Vincent-Smith’s quirky projected sketches which pepper the show, who rescued the piano at a time when it was becoming staid and boring, and whose music also rescued Will at a difficult phase while learning said instrument. This double timeline – the historical development of the piano from baroque to jazz, and the development of Will himself as a pianist – is an incredibly clever and well-executed storytelling device, rendered all the more impressive by the fact that there are at least two other timelines at play: human development from caveman to present (less fully explored), and the evolution of a species over Darwinian timespans. Which were the bits that I particularly digged.

The science communication is absolutely spot-on. The parallels Will draws between the animal kingdom and the musical instrument he loves – the analogy at the heart of the Anatomy – repeatedly surprise and enlighten. Who’d’a thunk there’d be so many links between pianos and giraffes and whales and water and our own skin and bones and teeth? Everything has evolved, and indeed everything is still evolving. It lead me to ponder what the future may hold; what the next development will be in man and music machine. And then there it was before my eyes: is he the next step for humanity and piano, a being merged with its instrument, with a head capable of twisting backwards like an owl for nigh on an hour, finding newfangled combinations of keys faster than you can shake your Bach at?

I suspect he had to work harder than normal to involve today’s somewhat sundrenched Sunday afternoon crowd (or perhaps the soothing piano music as we took our seats, presumably designed to lull any particularly boisterous youngsters in our midst, succeeded a bit too well), but the fact that he won us round, and got us all calling out responses and singing along, is testament to his enormous sensitivity and charm as a performer. He is one of us. He, like us, “doesn’t like instructions”. When he was younger and had to perform in assembly, he got nervous, which all us pianists or performers, budding or budded, can relate to. And he, like every one of us, really really really wants to go to space.

The piece is studded with cracking one-liners, which I won’t ruin by reprinting them here (and any such reproduction would anyway be disappointingly void of his slinky-sharp comic timing and delivery). The humour, as with the science, as with the history, as with the music, is aimed at the universal audient*: nothing is purely for the kids, nothing purely for the adults. The fact that the version I saw is aimed specifically at younger audiences is completely by-the-by. I am a kid aged thirty-eight-and-a-half and I loved this show.

(* “Audient” is a word I’m trying to bring into the English language, though I’m pretty sure I’m not the first to suggest it. It means “a member of an audience”, which is just cumbersome (my mother tongue Swedish has a word, but it too is cumbersome: “publikmedlem”))