‘Preludes’ review

Theatre, Musicals
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Preludes, Southwark Playhouse
© Scott Rylander Keith Ramsay, Georgia Louise, Rebecca Caine

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Cult composer Dave Malloy’s hypnotically strange musical about Rachmaninoff’s time in hypnotherapy

American writer and lyricist David Malloy’s ‘Preludes’ isn’t straightforwardly about a man who makes music. It manages to burrow inside his music and inside his head. It digs into what makes people make. Debuting in the UK at Southwark Playhouse, it’s a strange, beautiful, sprawling piece about creativity, writer’s block and legacy. It’s unlike any biographical drama you’ll have seen.   

Malloy’s starting point is Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff’s visit to hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). Rachmaninoff (Keith Ramsay) had been mired in depression for three years, living with his fiancée Natalya (Georgia Louise), unable to write since the disastrous reception to his ‘Symphony No 1’. He wants help, but he doesn’t know how to move forward.

What follows is a trance-like deep dive into Rachmaninoff’s relationship with composing and other people, as his music entwines with the jabbing score that accompanies Malloy’s twisting, sharply vulnerable lyrics. It’s skilfully arranged by musical director Jordan Li-Smith, playing against the off-kilter angles of Rebecca Brower’s set and Christopher Nairne’s neon-pulsing lighting.

Director Alex Sutton’s production, with a piano centre-stage and Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant playing keyboards in booths either side, has the expressionist strangeness of a Kraftwerk concert. It embraces Rachmaninoff’s self-absorption just enough, while cutting through it with mordant streaks of surreal humour. Steven Serlin is laconically excellent, appearing on stage as the playwright Chekov, the composer Tchaikovsky and an elderly, furious Tolstoy.

As Rachmaninoff, awed by these artistic greats, Ramsay is the original emo kid, in the best possible way. Huddled away in a huge coat – part of the show’s timeless hinterland – he’s a portrait of agitated alienation. He’s wild-eyed, fearfully yearning and anxious about his legacy as Caine’s spectral Dahl circles the stage. Meanwhile, as Natalya, Louise mixes deep love with frustration.

The intensely mesmeric effect lessens in the second half, as the set-pieces become more drawn out and a fanboyish sentimentality begins to creep in. It’s as though Malloy doesn’t quite know how to end the fantasia he’s started. But make no mistake: this is an utterly unique experience, which exercises a strange, moving grip. You find yourself lost in its feverish rhythm.  

By: Tom Wicker

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