“It’s a conversation.” Max Alexander-Taylor chats with audience members pre-show, sitting casually on empty seats, guitar in hand. He speaks, not as Benjamin Scheuer, the autobiographical character he plays, but as himself. These intimate moments prime the audience for a similar intimacy in performance: a three-quarter thrust in Southwark Playhouse’s The Little, the light from elegantly scattered shade-less lamps low and warm, a musical performance that is spoken as much as it is sung. This opening moment, however, also highlights the difficulty of reviving an autobiographical show with a new performer. The tension between actor and character remains nearly constant.
The Lion, a revival of the Drama Desk Award-winning 2014 folk musical, traces the story of Scheuer’s upbringing, his battle with cancer as a young man, and his coming to terms with an imperfect father. The narrative and character relationships are drawn through the constant motif and medium of folk music. The songs are thoughtful and specific—a line about Scheuer’s first girlfriend writing corrections to the White House correspondent at the New York Times remains ringing in my mind. Key moments in the character’s life are marked by the introduction of a new guitar, all of which line the back wall of the stage. These guitar changes serve as an effective storytelling mechanism—the electric guitar marks Benjamin’s burst into early adulthood, his final acoustic guitar is visually and sonically glossy, matching his personal triumph and maturation. The red guitar, however, which is introduced midway through the show, enters unaddressed. This break in convention takes away slightly from what is otherwise a narratively taught piece of theatre.
As the performance unfolds, Alexander-Taylor oscillates between disappearing into the character and narrating from outside of him. Instead of leaning into this tension, aside from the pre-show conversations, the performance attempts to gloss over it, which leads to a general unevenness. Alexander-Taylor’s disappearances, which become more frequent in the final leg of the performance, are quite compelling. The guitar work becomes both looser and more detailed, which is mirrored by his impassioned and emotive vocal performance. The earlier portions of the show would have benefitted from this looseness, though the directorial impulse of Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels to reign these moments in is understandable. The trade-off between clarity of langue and clarity of emotion can be difficult to manage, especially with verbose and narratively rich songs.
Emma Chapman’s lighting design is understated yet expressive. The exposed bulbs that litter the stage and audience alike glow and temper along with the emotional waves of the piece. A blue wash creates the impression of the dive bars in which Benjamin plays the angsty grunge and blues rock of his youth. A cool, harsh sidelight transports us to a moonlit cemetery. At the climax, light emanates from beneath the weathered wooden planks (set design Simon Kenny) that form the stage, filling the room.
While the tension between character and performer lends itself to narrative instability, The Lion does not want for technical prowess or pathos.
“it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure”
Aged just nineteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C-sharp minor to world-wide acclaim, was commissioned to write his first symphony and he was engaged to the love of his life. He seemed to have it all, yet within months a depressive paranoia and anxiety had stopped him in his tracks; a darkness that no doubt came from within but was also prompted in part by Tchaikovsky’s death, and by the effortful completion of his own Symphony No. 1 which was subsequently panned by the critics. The conductor, an alcoholic, was drunk at the premiere. But Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block had already set in. He was already displeased with his composition, feeling he had peaked too early with his Prelude, and the Orthodox church was thwarting his plans for marriage.
Composing had become impossible. How do you escape the darkness and come back into the light? All this, and more, is explored in Dave Malloy’s “Preludes” which examines, in extraordinary and beautifully surreal ways, the true story of this particular episode of his life. A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This is not just another musical about a tortured artist. Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and the orchestrations has crafted an enigma. It defies categories, but also mixes them. It feels experimental but is perfectly formed, it lulls you into its trance-like dreamscape but keeps your attention razor sharp; it mixes the past, present and future. We are in a world where Mahler, Reggae, Beethoven and Doo-Wop can share the same phrase, where Acid Trance weaves its rhythms into the phrases of a Piano Concerto.
The starting point is the composer’s session with his therapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). “How was your day?” she asks – not the question to ask a damaged, depressed artistic genius three years into a stifling breakdown. Keith Ramsay, as Rachmaninoff (or rather ‘Rach’), launches into a monologue which sets the pace for a tour de force performance. Ramsay is the picture of unsettled alienation; wide-eyed and wild-eyed, uncertain of his worth. Intense, chilling and hypnotising. His words bleed into Malloy’s haunting melodies which in turn flow into Rachmaninoff’s timeless compositions.
We are never too sure if the surrounding characters are in the composer’s mind or not, but under Alex Sutton’s riveting direction they are brought to vivid life. They circle him, cajole him and bravely try to help him. Georgia Louise, as Natalya, is pivotal to restoring the composer’s state of mind with her patience, stretched to the limit at times. There are moments when their voices collide in their duets when you can forget everything. Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas II brilliantly spill out of Rach’s mind into the camera shot, thanks to the vigour, versatility and virtuosity of Steven Serlin. Norton James, as Russian opera singer Chaliapin, plays with our minds with a Mephistophelean portrayal that verges on psychedelic madness. Crucial to the piece is Tom Noyes at the piano, letting the true genius of Rachmaninoff reveal itself through the musical accompaniment.
The production transfers from stage to camera in an astounding blaze of glory. Aided by Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s eclectic sound it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure. Contradictions have never been more harmonious. The mix of classical music, musical theatre, trance beats, neon lights; introspection and overt humour, reality and fantasy, past and present, just would not work on paper. But on stage and on camera it is an intoxicating brew. Dark and beautiful. And hypnotic.