‘Mood Music’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(19user reviews)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
1/4
© Manuel Harlan Ben Chaplin (Bernard) and Seána Kerslake (Kat)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
2/4
© Manuel Harlan Ben Chaplin (Bernard)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
3/4
© Manuel Harlan Pip Carter (Ramsay)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
4/4
© Manuel Harlan Seána Kerslake (Kat)

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.

By: Andrzej Lukowski

Posted:

Average User Rating

2.9 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:2
  • 3 star:7
  • 2 star:5
  • 1 star:2
LiveReviews|19
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1 of 1 found helpful
tastemaker

The play offers an insight into the murky waters of the music industry. We see two musicians talking to their therapists about a song they worked on together and gradually see how their relationship broke apart through the fight for recognition over the hit.

It covers some really important and very current issues around the music industry - taking advantage of raw talent, sexual abuse, misogyny, the stress of touring, drug abuse and, of course, greed. These are all really important issues but I think it would have been more gripping and thought provoking to focus on one and really analyse it than to skim the surface of all of them.

The play itself was a bit too static to be interesting. The same actors are on stage the whole time they just walk to a different area of the stage occasionally but the scenery never changes. It's not a very visually inspiring play. There is some comic relief from Bernard, the aging, egotistically rock star turned producer but his character is such an over exaggerated stereotype that it isn't really in fitting with the rest of the play.

Perhaps I should have looked into the play a bit more before I went but I think that the title misled me into believing there would be some actual music in it. There is some right at the end and it would have been great to hear more of it. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting a full on musical or anything. I think this subject matter could have had a lot of potential but unfortunately the way it was done was quite dull.

1 of 1 found helpful
Tastemaker

I had no connection to the cast, so I had no vested interest in their therapy. It was painful to watch but not in a good way. Ben Chaplin was great. But this was a huge miss for me. Should have been called Mood Therapy Session.

Tastemaker

Sex, drugs rock and roll. Throw in some lawyers and therapists into the mix and basically you get the jist of this play. Interesting insights behind the scenes of the cut throat world of the music industry which were eye opening. The cast were great and acted well and the setting of the old Vic was great for this play. I didn't enjoy the therapy sessions in this play which I felt just dragged on. Also echoing other people's views there was hardly any music which was a big disappointment considering the name of the play and all the instruments on the stage. However the actors did show their musical side at the finale of the play but it was a bit late by then!


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.

tastemaker

Mood music

A simply-staged but brilliantly delivered play about the nasty side of the music industry.

Two musicians, Cat and Bernard, are having a bitter dispute over the ownership of the songs from their first successful album in-between writing a second album which they’re contractually obliged to do.

Cat- talented and newly discovered, is reluctantly opening up to her therapist, and Bernard- with his massive ego- is comfortably stating his view of things to his lawyers. And so the story of how she is exploited and manipulated unfolds. But Bernard can’t or won’t see how any of this is his wrong-doing.

The subject is deep-and very relevant today- but there are moments of humour, even if it is just from Bernard’s unbelievably egotistical remarks.

The casting is spot-on- I can’t imagine anyone other than Ben Chaplin playing Bernard.

The staging is minimalistic but effective so as not to detract from the strong performances.

I was totally drawn in from beginning to end.

tastemaker

A strange choice for The Old Vic to show this new play for its 200th anniversary.  I would have expected them to choose something more classical, despite their intent on "new writings" (and risking discontent amongst their audience).  The characters were believable enough, though lines not always delivered with conviction - except for the wonderfully, nasty, arrogant and funny character played by Ben Chaplin  Without his strong performance, this play would have died on its feet.  He relished the part.  The play took the audience back to the multitude of law suits we've heard about, over and over again: who really wrote the songs, who created the idea of the piece, etc, and therefore who owns the "rights".  All down to fighting about money, despite protestations from all sides that it was their creative side that needed recognition.  Interesting.  I will look out for Ben Chaplin in future theatre productions.

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tastemaker

Simplistic staging, costumes and few actors create a very timely story, which explores the rights of artists and the vulnerability of women within the creative industries. Despite focusing on the 'music industry' music does not play a large role in the story telling, the focus is instead on a very well acted script, which leaves the audience to draw the ultimate conclusions of guilt and innocence. 

tastemaker

The Old Vic's latest production is a timely and well staged affair, with an impeccable cast (Ben Chaplin especially so who owns his role as world-weary Bernard, replacing Rhys Ifans who withdrew fairly last minute due to 'personal reasons'). Written by renowned playwright Joe Penhall, this play details the pitfalls and capricious (and sometimes brutal) nature of the music industry, as told my a small handful of characters including lawyers and a psychiatrist. 


Although incredibly relevant with the recent and much needed 'Me Too' movement (with the occasional astute repast), I can't say I was compelled by the play, with it probably needing 20 or so minutes to be cut. Maybe Rhys made a wise decision after all...

tastemaker

With greater scrutiny now being placed across every industry and abuses of power finally coming to light, the premiere of "Mood Music" couldn't feel more timely. Centring on the music industry, Joe Penhall's new play tells an oh-so-familiar story of a talented but vulnerable artist falling prey to the narcissism of a much-celebrated icon.


Ben Chaplin is both convincing and infuriating as Bernard, the profoundly arrogant music producer striving to create another hit record, whilst Seána Kerslake imbues Kat – a young singer-songwriter – with the wide-eyed gratitude of someone thrilled to be collaborating with her idol. However, as the depths of Bernard's self-interest and the precariousness of Kat's situation become apparent, lawyers and therapists arrive to analyse and advise on the situation spiralling before them.


Using a witty, pacy cross-cut script, Penhall poses many questions to his audience: Which version of events is true? Are both parties to blame? Can collaborators truly share success? Can a riff belong to one person? Whilst these quandaries aren't really solved, we begin to see why lesser-known voices are often the ones that are silenced. 


The conclusion may be a little unsatisfactory (art imitating life, perhaps) but with an excellent supporting cast, some brilliantly acerbic dialogue, plus a stellar performance from Ben Chaplin, "Mood Music" is well-worth the visit.

tastemaker

Not much music (none really), & not a lot of drama. Ben Chaplin is terrific as a jaded established singer/ manager/songwriter, & he enjoy a lot of good lines. He is working on a planned commercial success, and latches on to a young girl singer, because as he says "girls are the new boys". We are in the world of recording studios, of agents, of lawyers, the battle between money & art, and the exploitation of the weak.

It didn't tell me a great deal that I couldn't have guessed & sadly it just failed to get my attention. 

Tastemaker

The play was cleverly done and executed well.

Ben Chaplin was bril and played the troubled selfish risk star well.

The story was clever, especially in the currently climate of #metoo

My friends and I struggled a bit with the story and following it.

tastemaker

I thought this play had a lot of potential. However, that's about it. The storyline - a woman taken advantage of in the music industry - presented primarily through overlapping therapy sessions for both this singer and her manager tell the story in a more detached way that does not allow you to connect with any of the characters. It is very clever how the stories occur on the stage at the same time and overlap, however, the story itself was too static. There was no climactic moment and the ending fell particularly flat for me. They tease you with a stage full of musical instruments that they don't use! I felt that a little bit of music within mood music would have made a huge difference. Throughout, one of them will pick up an instrument.....hold it for a minute.....play an off key note.....and then. set. it. back. down. WHY?! I'd have rather sat through a therapy session of my own than sit through that....... and I'd have had more fun.

tastemaker

This play is kinda average. Great cast, interesting set that is designed to look like a recording studio set up and the conversations of the cast that cleverly interweave are genuinely impressive but it’s not enough. It’s clever that it interweaves but the story arc overall is severely lacking.

I thought there’d be an exciting revelation at the end. A ‘wow!’ End but nothing unexpected occurred. It’s just a lot Of talking and the instruments dotted about the set feel massively underused. They play the shortest piece of music at the very end of the play and I’m saying that was my fave moment. Throw more of that in to hold peoples attention as it’s so full of chat that it can be exhausting to maintain focus and attention.

The fact that the guy sat next to me genuinely fell asleep is not the best sign eh.

Average in every way

tastemaker

The staging of Mood Music is very interesting.  You see the play from various different perspectives, which intertwine - its very cleverly done.  The performances are generally strong, in particular Ben Chaplin.  It's a relevant story considering  what's been revealed about the media industry in the last year and you feel a little deflected at the end as you're not sure anything will ever change and that it's all a vicious cycle.  I just don't know if I really enjoyed the play though - maybe that's a hard ask considering the subject matter.  it is gritty, but something just didn't fully translate for me.

tastemaker

For a play revolving around the music industry, the lack of music really bothered me. The way the play is executed, with three levels of independent conversations weaving through each other is excellent, but that's where the positives stop. The stage is far too big and if you are sitting up in one of the two Circles, it is really hard to see the actors, who are right at the front.


Usually one tends to like any performance (TV, theatre or films) if you can connect with at least one character (positively or negatively). I didn't feel any emotional connection to any of the characters and really didn't care what happened to them. 


The plot definitely has potential, however it lacked a punchy delivery.

tastemaker

This play has so much potential to be really good, but I just don't think it was. The subject matter was a great idea for a play (probably would work better as a film) but I felt that the set was far too big and it would have worked a lot better in the proscenium arch. I was longing for a song/a longer piece of music to be played, but that never came. I guess it makes the point of the piece more poignant that we never get to hear the music they are warring over, however the instruments on set just felt like a waste. The sections where the protagonists talk to their lawyers was clever, at points using similar dialogue to express different things and this kept me engaged but I just wanted more. I could see so many opportunities for interesting staging and scene choices, but it just became one long conversation, all talk and no action.

tastemaker

I really wanted to like Mood Music, if only because Joe Penhall's credentials are certainly stunning. Although I enjoyed the play, I don't necessarily think it's his best work.


The story revolves a little around the role of women in society and empowerment, and a lot around the music industry. It's just that neither side is strong enough to claim to be the play's main topic. This left me a bit confused. If female empowerment was meant to be a key topic, I feel the female characters could have done with more developing. Cat's therapist's character is over-the-top generic and her every line feels somewhat fake. Cat herself is realistic as a character, but I think that's due to the fact that she fights then retreats. Rebels without a cause. Which, of course, leaves us disappointed.


Bernard is written as overly comical and remains fairly shallow throughout - very funny, granted, but you can pretty much guess his every next move, and there's really no mystery in where the story is heading.


Nonetheless, the stage set is very cool - especially the hanging microphones - and a bit of music shakes things up. I also really enjoyed the structure of the first act, when the dialogues between the four parties intertwine. I wish that kind of wittiness remained throughout, but I felt that got lost by the second half.


All in all, very enjoyable - I'm just still not sure what it was about.

tastemaker

Wow, what a production! Smart, witty and well within the times of today. The story follows two "artists" (1 producer/1 singer-songwriter) and their war over songs, tour, attitude etc. An eye-opening view into the music industry and very cleverly written so that you even find it hard to not like the narcissistic Bernard (played brilliantly by Ben Chaplin). His monologue about music at the end of the first act was powerful and incredible and you could see Cat (Seana Kerslake) visibly crumble as she sits listening to him take over. 

The staging was simple yet effective and I particularly loved the back of the stage, where the lawyers and therapists all sat watching on when they were not in the main throng of the story. This was particularly effective when they grabbed their instruments and started to play at the end. 


A shout out to Seymour (Neil Stuke) Bernard's lawyer - incredibly funny and well-written character, they both really bounced off of each other. 


By far the best play I have seen for a while and I will encourage to go and see it before its short run (June) ends. 

Tastemaker

I really enjoyed this production and for some reason it reminded me a lot of Bull by Mike Bartlett, in terms of the minimal set and the intensity and wit that was on display. The two leads were great and they were well supported by a talented (instrument-playing) cast. All 6 actors were very suitably cast and I really loved how eye-opening it was for people not in the music industry like myself. It really makes me wonder what else goes on in that industry, and glad I am not working in it. I do highly recommend it as an entertaining night out as well, even for those who are not interested in music. This is a great production not to be missed!