Boys on the Verge of Tears, Kiln Theatre, 2024
Photo: Mark Senior
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


The Ballad of Hattie and James

4 out of 5 stars

Charles Edwards and Sophie Thompson star in a moving, music-drenched drama about a decades-long friendship


Time Out says

A ballad tells a story and writer Samuel Adamson starts his with a narrative misdirection: a woman is filmed playing a piano at St Pancras International and the footage goes viral, reuniting her with a man who professes still to love her. This looks like it’s going to be that story. But it’s not. And that’s precisely the point.

As the play zips between the 1970s, 1990s and pre- and post-COVID-19, nonconformist Hattie (Sophie Thompson) and uptight James (Charles Edwards) meet as very different, talented teenage pianists at a cross-school production of Benjamin Britten’s one-act opera ‘Noye’s Fludde’. They rub each other up the wrong way, but like Velcro – forging a friendship that flies catastrophically apart after a tragedy.

Like his previous play at Kiln Theatre, ‘Wife’, Adamson plays deftly with gender and expectation. The script wheels around and upends what we think we know about Hattie’s decline into self-destructive alcoholism and James’s success as a composer for an anodyne, oh-so-’90s Richard Curtis-style film about a cutout of a female character whose cancer teaches all the other male characters something.

Richard Twyman's assured production doesn’t stint on showing the pain of the betrayal at the heart of the story, but also doesn’t neglect the beauty of the music. This is embodied by pianist Berrak Dyer, whose on-stage presence is far more effective than Edwards and Thompson pretending to play. She’s like a witness – providing fleeting moments of grace as they rest against her.     

As Hattie, a charismatic Thompson seems to disrupt the very air around her, sandpaper raw in a world determined to box her in. Edwards holds himself with excruciatingly effective tightness, clipping his lines with the simmering precision of a desk clerk who might be about to throw his typewriter out of the window. These differing styles could easily not work, but here they spark like a match – a friendship caught over time as a very recognisable series of mini explosions.  

There’s also excellent, versatile work by Suzette Llewellyn as the various women in Hattie and James’s life – most meaningfully, as Hattie’s wife, and respected academic, Bo. In her protectiveness of Hattie, her support of the success ensuing from her renewed love of playing the piano and her acceptance that she will never entirely know her, we see the relationship in this play with the deepest and healthiest roots.     

The true touchstones here are gay composer Britten, the boldness of whose life and artistic vision James is fearful to emulate, even after he has also come out, and Hattie’s love of Fanny Mendelssohn, a talented composer who was completely ignored by history in favour of her brother Felix (to whose work she also contributed).

The play runs a little too long before the interval but modulates into something more finely textured – and hopeful. While this ballad is really about a long and ignoble tradition of sidelined women, its final verse gives the women in its story their spotlight.


£15-£40. Runs 2hr 30min
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