“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.
“in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End”
It is worth remembering what a lasting impact the nineteenth century impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, had on London’s theatreland. Having brought Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert together he built the Savoy Theatre in order to stage their works. Later, in an attempt to establish more serious opera, Carte built the Royal English Opera House; which is now known as the Palace Theatre. Although it staged Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”, none of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas ever made it onto the grand stage.
Sasha Regan’s all male “Pirates of Penzance” has enjoyed success for a decade now in the UK and Australia, its journey briefly interrupted by the pandemic. But in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End, while many theatres are still sleeping, and seize the accolade of presenting the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to play in D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built theatre. And it deserves it.
The company don’t take the stage by storm. Instead, they use the weapons of wit, joy, irreverence, humour and harmony. It is perhaps one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most accessible comic operas, containing some of Sullivan’s most recognised music. Gilbert’s libretto has a simplicity and clarity which matches Regan’s staging. What will lodge in the memory for a long time is how the production transports you to a bygone era. The space is vast, even by West End standards, but the cast fill it completely with a stripped back set, one piano, a bunch of finely tuned singers, and not a single microphone between them. Nothing is forced either. Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano notes and arpeggios float across the auditorium carrying the voices with them to the far corners of the theatre. Lizzi Gee’s superb choreography may have been devised with smaller spaces in mind, but the physicality of the ensemble make no apologies and they pull it off.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign on the coast of Cornwall, the story concerns the dutiful and soft-hearted Frederic who, having reached his twenty-first year has been released from his apprenticeship to a band of equally benevolent pirates. He promptly falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet he soon learns that he was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so only has a birthday every four years. Which makes him only five years old, meaning he has another sixty years to serve. What ensues is a gorgeous romp through the themes of courage, duty and honour.
Alan Richardson, as Mabel, stuns us with his soaring falsetto. But it is unfair to single him out, the entire ensemble is pitch perfect, from bass through to soprano. It is credit to the cast that at no point does it really occur to us that we are watching men dressed as women. There is plenty of chest and facial hair on view, but such are the nuances, mannerisms and finesse of the cast, we are convinced. This is not high camp; it is not drag; it is character acting at its finest. Tom Senior’s Frederic is just as convincing, and you believe in the chemistry between the actors. Leon Craig’s hapless nurse, Ruth, is a master of comedy, vying for the laughs with David McKechnie’s Major-General. The accolades, though, belong to the entire team and given space they would all receive a special mention.
The continued success of the all-male “Pirates of Penzance” is undoubtedly on dry land; and this stunning production feels completely at home in the West End. Yes, maybe it might not have made it there in normal times (though I like to think it would), but we can certainly hoist the flag to celebrate one of the most delightful, innovative, funny and musically rich interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan.