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In the midst of Joe Penhall’s lithe and pungent new play, Mood Music, characters dissect both the purpose of music and the emotional qualities needed to make it. Is music about “healing heartbreak and vulnerability,” or selling it? Does creativity require a person to be happy and well-adjusted, or a rampant mess?
If there are no clear-cut answers to those questions, one horrible assertion does prevail: that the music industry can be hell for a woman. Though the piece is predicated on a battle over intellectual property — the authorship of a song — which is a commonplace and gender-neutral issue, it turns into a treatise on the one-sided gender power play that has left many a female victim in its wake.
Penhall wrote his play before the Weinstein scandal and its ensuing ripple effect across the entertainment industry, but it has become horribly apposite. While hardly revelatory, now, it’s dense with debate and very funny, with a diabolical new villain for the #MeToo times.
He is Bernard (Ben Chaplin), a middle-aged, successful music producer, whose preferred moniker, “artist-producer,” spells exactly the kind of trouble he represents for those working with him. At one point he declares quite shamelessly, “I am the music.” In fact, everything about Bernard is shameless, which gifted, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Cat (Seana Kerslake) is learning to her cost.
Having made an album together, the pair have just returned from a tour of the U.S. with a hit single under their belts, but with Cat accusing her producer of stealing the writing credit. As Cat and Bernard’s lawyers prowl in the wings, the record company has assigned therapists to the talent. After all, the pair are contracted to make another record — it’s in everyone’s interests that they patch things up.
Penhall sets up a whirling, overlapping, cross-cutting panoply of conversations involving Bernard and Cat, their shrinks and lawyers. Sometimes the focus is on one exchange, sometimes two or three are underway at once, with people wandering from one to another.
Sometimes the action harks back to the warring pair’s earlier experiences in the recording studio, where we witness Bernard’s scheming narcissism lay the groundwork for his later authorship claims, but also the mutual understanding — about the music itself — that the other characters can’t possibly understand.
The use of lawyers and shrinks is a smart way of addressing the tension in this milieu between the personal and the commercial. And slowly a seemingly straightforward argument over who wrote a song develops nuance: Cat’s unhappy childhood and possible addiction to booze and painkillers makes her vulnerable to Svengali poseurs and a tragedy waiting to happen; Bernard, the cocky two-time divorcé with a disdainful one-liner for everyone (“Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish,” “How could I possibly know what my wife was feeling?”) could well be a child-damaged sociopath, whose nonchalant cruelty towards Cat is positively chilling. It’s interesting seeing the play so soon after the Penhall-scripted serial killer TV series Mindhunter.
And then there’s the game-changing revelation of the U.S. tour, the possibility that a comatose Cat was abused or, at the very least, humiliated by the male band and crew. Her lawyer sees leverage, Cat’s shrink the real damage that needs to be addressed.
Penhall and director Roger Michell are frequent collaborators, notably on Penhall’s Olivier Award-winning Blue/Orange, and their adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Here, Michell’s chief task is to choreograph his six actors in their dialoguing dance. It’s no mean feat, and the virtue of Hildegard Bechtier’s low-key set — sofa, chairs, a keyboard, a drum kit — is that it keeps out of the way.
Ironically, the cleanness of the production does expose its flaws. Both the soul-searching and the machinations become repetitive; though the play comes in at a neat two hours, it feels padded. Some characters fare better than others — Neil Stuke has fun as Bernard’s lawyer, gamely trying to coax his client toward some half-decent behavior, while Cat’s shrink is a textbook figure, limply played by Jemma Redgrave. Despite the presence of the inestimable David Arnold as composer, the snatches of music being created by Cat and Bernard don’t seem worth the fuss.
Yet Mood Music remains a highly entertaining provocation, driven by an excellent performance by Chaplin. Handed the role after Rhys Ifans had to pull out for personal reasons, Chaplin demonstrates something of the Welshman’s louche danger, with an added measure of mischief. It helps that the actor has the sort of conspicuous good looks that turn a little cruel with age.
“I have not exploited anyone who did not want to be exploited,” Bernard asserts, as it becomes apparent that he’s the only one onstage who actively wants the discord he has created and is impervious to its effects. Alongside this addictive monster, the likable Kerslake’s Cat doesn’t stand a chance.
Penhall worked for a while as a music journalist, and had his own, apparently difficult experience of collaborating with rock royalty when he wrote his second Olivier winner, the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon, with Ray Davies. Mood Music‘s depressing insight into what it takes to keep the show on the road does have the frisson of familiarity that makes it play, if not like a hit single, then certainly a memorable B-side.
Venue: Old Vic, London
Cast: Ben Chaplin, Seana Kerslake, Jemma Redgrave, Pip Carter, Neil Stuke, Kurt Egyiawan
Director: Roger Michell
Playwright: Joe Penhall
Set designer: Hildegard Bechtier
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Music: David Arnold
Sound designer: John Leonard
Presented by The Old Vic
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