Reviewed – 11th September 2019
“It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal”
Sergei Rachmaninoff was just beginning his career as one of Russia’s most promising composers when he was struck with crippling depression. For three years he was unable to write music and eventually began seeing a hypnotherapist to overcome his creative block. Dave Malloy’s Preludes, originally produced off-Broadway in 2015, reimagines these years. Filled with Rachmaninoff’s music, and framed as a series of hypnotherapy sessions, the story follows the young musician’s journey back from the brink. Alex Sutton directs the London premier.
Described as “a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff”, the show fits the bill. It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal. A blend of present and past, the world is a dreamlike confusion of modern-day New York City and 1890s Moscow. Rach and his friends take the subway to meet Tolstoy, and he must ask permission from the Czar to marry. Malloy reinforces this alternate universe with modern adaptations of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. The grand piano on stage is flanked by two keyboards (Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant).
The hybrid music is a successful experiment. Although Malloy’s lyrics can feel simple and uninspired at times, the cast’s strong vocal performances are a treat. Georgia Louise stands out in particular, and Norton James and Rebecca Caine’s operatic voices nicely contribute to the show’s clash between modern musical and nineteenth century opera.
Preludes’ setting is impossibly tricky: it’s Russia and America; 2019 and late 1890s; it mostly takes place inside a character’s mind. But set and costume designer Rebecca Brower has risen to the challenge. Rach (Keith Ramsay) wears a long overcoat, black combat boots, and eyeliner. He has the double-headed eagle insignia of the Russian Empire tattooed on his back. Natalya (Georgia Louise) wears a blouse, a long taffeta skirt, and Superga trainers. Brower’s set frames the stage in concentric rectangular shapes which light up with the music, invoking an EDM concert as well as a trance-inducing illusion: a canny reminder that the scenes are figments of a hypnotised mind – that we should be prepared for the distorted and the unreal. It all comes together to create an uneasy yet appealing aesthetic.
Like Rach’s psyche, the show divides the artist in two: there’s the tortured young man (Ramsay), and his music (Tom Noyes). Cleverly, the two manifestations occasionally acknowledge or disrupt each other. Ramsay is ideal as the troubled genius. His hunched shoulders and wide eyes give him a haunted air. He’s the sensitive, uncertain artist, wounded by the world, and at the same time the defiant punk Malloy believes the composer was at heart – deliberately wanting his music to upset his teachers, to blow the walls off tradition with his big, loud, chaotic scores. Noyes is at the piano throughout, and his performance is a delight. Steven Serlin brings much of the comedy with his characters (Chekov, Tolstoy, the Czar). He plays nicely off Ramsay’s insecurity and gloominess.
While Preludes is smart, imaginative, and greatly enjoyable, there are moments where it falters. The beginning takes a while to get going. The wedding scene, which begins compelling and funny with Serlin’s Czar, runs on and becomes saccharine with discussion of where God can be found. The painfully long guided hypnotism near the end will test your patience.
But as a whole, the show’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Inventive and enticingly strange, Preludes is a fantastical celebration of music. It’s playful and irreverent with a deep love of its subject at its heart. Malloy and Sutton seem to be arguing Rachmaninoff would have appreciated the audacity. They might be right.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Scott Rylander
Southwark Playhouse until 12th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: