The Old Vic, London – until 16 June 2018
The theatrical repertoire has a new monster: Bernard, created by Joe Penhall and brought to scorchingly memorable, sociopathically irresistible life by Ben Chaplin. Who is wonderful. Made for the part. Bernard is a music producer-creator-arranger, a drawlingly infuriating musical genius idolised for his long record of successes by the very young singer he decides to “use” – his word – on a two-album deal and US tour. But she is also a creative, a songwriter and a girl of some spirit (Seana Kerslake, convincingly teenage and even more convincingly troubled). She is not a submissive Trilby to his Svengali. So he likes to confuse and belittle her instinctive, passionate talent with advice that artfully undermines (“Let’s try it with a mandolin. Or a glockenspiel”). And when it comes to crediting her in the sleeve and at the Novello Awards, Bernard doesn’t. Won’t. As he amiably puts it: “On the one hand I want to be kind and generous and co-operative. On the other hand, why the hell should I?”
She’s just another tool for his genius, like the drummer he hit because “drummers don’t feel pain, they’re like fish”. The music industry happens to be hungry for girl singers, now that “girls are the new boys”. She feels robbed and abused, which indeed she is. For most of the play, we see the pair of them onstage both at once but in different places: each is giving their version of the poisoned collaboration to a therapist, with increasing interventions by the respective lawyers.
We learn that it has turned nasty following a US tour and the credit row, and the lawyers fight with increasing viciousness – Neil Stuke and Kurt Egyiawan, both overwhelmed by their clients’ temperaments – while one therapist (Jemma Redgrave) spouts psycho-theory to her about how music activates the reward centres, and Bernard’s psych makes helpless attempts to humanise him.
Sometimes in flashbacks you see them together and get small moments at the keyboard or with the opening words of a song when you think first yes, he’s an old-stage, a perfectionist, he can enhance what she creates: make it a hit. But then moments later you think “he is just messing with her head, that glockenspiel business is pure bullying”. But if he’s a demon, she can be a diva: when she bites back accusing him of “dad-rock” values he winces; when she dismisses her therapist for not understanding the fiery world of creativity, Kerslake is plain terrifying.
That she is a young girl and he an older, battered, canny man is important, yet this is not another predictable bit of MeToo outrage. The point is that this is a specific environment, the Winehouse-hothouse of a music industry where private damage and profound feeling -“deeper than sex” says Cait – are for sale. And, crucially, intense performances are achieved on gruelling, drug-fuelled tour schedules. The most darkly hilarious scenes are between the two lawyers when hers – hearing that she was carried senseless from Pittsburgh to LA and woke backstage in her underwear – realizes that them taking her across state borders means he can involve the FBI and claim kidnap. Bernard on his side explains it’s all part of the tour camaraderie. “Esprit de corps, or Stockholm syndrome?” comes the riposte.
But there are hundreds of wonderful lines and ironic, profound reflections on the business. “A song doesn’t have a heart” says Bernard. “It has a void” . Yes. These are the soundtrack of all our emotional lives; we creep inside a song with our own pain and longing. We invest in it. But so do vast multinational corporations, sharp lawyers, promoters and a myriad of session players, roadies, groupies, entourage sycophants and rehab therapists. Penhall was once a rock journalist, and had a tough time writing Sunny Afternoon about the warring Kinks. He knows both the power and glory of great songs, and the potential for appalling behaviour, feuds, neuroses , sexist abominations, exploitation and lawsuits which beset the business. So with director Roger Michell Michell and an irresistible cast, he made it into a lethally funny, memorably moving, elegantly threaded play. Wince and marvel.
box office 0844 871 7628 www.oldvictheatre.com to 16 June
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada