‘A timely piece of writing’: MOOD MUSIC – Old Vic (Online review)

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An aborted attempt to watch Mood Music a couple of nights ago met with greater success second time round and I’m pleased that it did. This is an intelligent play from Joe Penhall which treats its audience as adults but still provides an entertaining evening. Essentially it is a satire on the music industry, with side swipes at therapists and lawyers, and examines what happens during the process of creating and who can lay claim to the intellectual property rights which result.

Bernard and Cat are both undergoing therapy and the play starts with swift intercutting between their separate sessions with, respectively, Ramsay and Vanessa. This is a clever way to begin as exposition is dealt with efficiently without feeling forced and sets the mood for the swift scene shifting that is to follow throughout. It quickly transpires that Bernard is a topflight music producer who has “discovered” Cat and brings her into the studio to record an album. There’s a big hit song, though whether it’s Bernard or Cat who can claim the IP is a moot point, and this becomes the source of dispute, acrimony and eventual legal proceedings as lawyers Miles and Seymour become involved.

Things move from bad to worse once the song wins an award and at the ceremony Cat is blatantly side lined. During a subsequent tour, allegations of unprofessional conduct and even kidnap are aired, and the pair’s creative differences become personal and rancorous. Both the main characters feel they have much to prove to each other, the world and to themselves; Cat is particularly haunted by memories of her musician father and Bernard seems preoccupied by his relationship with his mother. His rapid deconstruction of The Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ is typical: “It’s about mothers. Written by two lonely lads who lost their mums when they were children and never recovered from it. It’s not some sort of code for sex. Lennon and McCartney just want their mummies.”

There’s an absolute star turn from Ben Chaplin as Bernard in a part that totally suits his style – louche, egotistical, cynical and with an acid wit. Here is a man who truly cannot understand why anything he does is not applauded to the skies and assumes that total control should be his by right; that Chaplin manages to avoid total audience condemnation is testament to his talents. Seána Kerslake as Cat demonstrates that she can be Bernard’s equal and refuses to be bullied into submission. Kerslake’s fiery demeanour, when it arrives, and her defiant gesture at the end raised an inward cheer. It’s a bit of a pity that we never really see her delivering the songs she has (co)created but perhaps that would be to weight the argument too much on one side.

The rest of the cast provide good support particularly Neil Stuke as entertainment lawyer, Seymour and Jemma Redgrave as therapist, Vanessa (a happy maternal coincidence?) but it really is Chaplin and Kerslake’s show. The best sections of the play show them directly interacting with each other as in the climax to Act One where Bernard hogs the limelight at the award ceremony; Cat subsequently points out that she doesn’t even get to touch the award let alone make an acceptance speech. In fact, I found myself wanting the play to focus on the main pair to an even greater extent and show more of them engaging in the creative process which sits at the heart of the argument. Penhall’s script is riddled with canny truths and smart ripostes as the creatives, the lawyers and even the therapists jockey for position. Roger Michell’s clever fluid direction ensures that the parallels are foregrounded as scenes flow into one another. I don’t know if the latter is becoming a bit of an Old Vic ”thing” but the same technique was used to propel Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs (see here).

Mood Music is a timely piece of writing highlighting, as it does, questions of creativity, control, ownership, capitalism and personal well-being. It amply demonstrates that patriarchal domination tends to rule the roost and that only the strong will survive. In effect this is the mood music (the background soundtrack) to so many lives in the 21st century and it is great to see a play which so fluidly and eloquently challenges the status quo. Recommended.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Mood Music  is available on the Old Vic website until July 14th. Click here

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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