Ben Chaplin is brilliant as a selfish rockstar in Joe Penhall's scathing music industry satire
Taking a brief break from his hit Netflix show ‘Mindhunter’, playwright Joe Penhall’s ‘Mood Music’ is a zeitgeisty psychodrama somewhat improbably revolving around two musicians arguing over writing credits.
Bernard (Ben Chaplin) is a narcissistic – possibly even sociopathic – middle-aged songwriter. The plot isn’t cluttered with backstory, but the impression we get is that he was a big rock star, who probably had a band, which probably split up because he was a nightmare to work with. Now, though, he’s focusing on his legacy and has moved into production work.
Seána Kerslake is Cat, a young singer-songwriter who was partnered with Bernard to make a record, which has duly gone on to be an enormous smash.
She is not happy though; in fact, neither of them seem especially happy. ‘Mood Music’ sees them largely apart from each other, cocooned by a lawyer and a psychotherapist apiece as they try and work through their extremely complicated web of resentments – ideally without suing each other, as they are contracted to make another album together.
There are a lot of resentments, but the crux of it is the question of who wrote the songs: Bernard – brittle, egotistical and terrified people might not think he’s brilliant – believes he deserves credit for turning Cat’s ideas into hits. Cat, not unreasonably, feels she deserves to have some credit for what she actually did.
There is a lot going on in Roger Michell’s taut, zingy production, in which Cat and Bernard’s conversations with their ‘people’ are intercut at turbo pace. But an awful lot of the focus of ‘Mood Music’ is on deconstructing the myth of the male genius: while no doubt gifted, Bernard burnishes his legend by unselfconsciously taking credit for everything, whilst quashing praise for Cat.
The #MeToo resonances are pretty apparent: Cat is mistreated less for specifically malicious reasons, more for systematic ones: she’s young and unable to prepare for and process the ruthless self-interest endemic in the music industry.
Unexpectedly, ‘Mood Music’ feels like an apt companion piece to Ella Hickson’s boiling assault on the theatre industry ‘The Writer’, currently slaying some of the same dragons in more radical form over at the Almeida.
Penhall’s play is more accessible, in large part due to the phenomenal turn from Ben Chaplin as Bernard. With genuine rock star charisma, an achingly affected loucheness and an ego the size of the Shard, he is an appalling prick but also completely magnetic in his extreme douchiness. He’s almost problematically watchable: it is enormously fun to watch him childishly tear everything down around him. And Penhall reserves him the best quips, while also taking care that none of his actions are ever so bad that they completely turn the room against him.
Kerslake is a bright, brittle presence as a young woman whose mental health is seriously starting to sag. But Cat is not really the role Bernard is – she’s drawn thinner and less well written, a sacrificial victim, albeit one with some fire in her belly.
The main problem with ‘Mood Music’, though, is less the power dynamics, more the plot dynamics. There is a convoluted reveal to do with Cat’s possible abuse at the hands of some of her touring road crew, but it never quite feels like a smoking gun. ‘Mood Music’ largely stays at the same place and pitch throughout, and not a huge amount changes over its duration. It’s both concise and entertaining, but at the same time you could leave after half an hour and pretty much get it.
Still, if it’s not perfect, it’s certainly impressively in tune with the current climate – no difficult comeback album for Penhall.
Average User Rating
2.9 / 5
- 5 star:3
- 4 star:2
- 3 star:7
- 2 star:5
- 1 star:2
Really disappointing. Felt more like a 1h45m lecture than an engaging play. Ben Chaplin was well cast but less convinced by Seána Kerslake. I had a major problem with the lack of music in the play. These two musicians were supposed to be passionate about music but we saw very little evidence of it. Some musical interludes (particularly in act one) could have provided a much needed respite from the endless therapy dialogue, and there's nothing more dramatically inert than listening to someone else's therapy session.
Running dialogue as parallel scenes is a useful device but was way overused which felt lazy. It is exhausting to listen to and I think contributes to the lack of connection with the characters.
Visually, the show is achingly dull - there's virtually no lighting changes in act one. Act two felt pacier but as others have said, I really didn't care for any of the characters. That is a problem.