The Pianist of Willesden Lane at St James Theatre
Dressed all in black with a red wig, Mona Golabek takes to the stage and introduces herself. She’s the daughter of Lisa Jura, a Jewish girl from Austria who’s dream it was to one day play at the famous Musikverein concert hall in Vienna – and she’s here to tell her mother’s story.
For the next 90 minutes, with a gorgeous black Steinway as her only co-star, Golabek takes us on a captivating musical journey through her mother’s life. When we first meet her, Lisa is a little girl in 1938 Vienna and she’s preparing for the most important moment of her week – her music lesson. Suspended above her in the darkness, huge gilt frames project old photographs of a carefree city, and as the story unfolds, the images change to provide an intimate glimpse into the past.
It’s not long before Lisa’s cherished lessons come to an abrupt end with the new orders of the brutal Nazi regime, and life as she knows it is never the same again. As her parents make the agonising decision to send their gifted, spirited daughter to London on the kindertransport, her mother makes Lisa promise that she will always “hold onto your music”. These words resonate throughout the show as Golabek demonstrates how, through the horror and darkness of war, music is Lisa’s friend and saviour – and her connection with the family and city that she’s left behind. In one particularly dramatic moment, she sits defiantly playing the piano in the cellar of her home in Willesden Lane as the bombs rain down from above.
As well as playing her mother throughout (with a slight accent and girlish cadence) Golabek must also represent the various people whom Lisa meets – from the stern lady of the manor where she’s initially sent (who declares that their piano “is to be seen and not heard”) to the welcoming, stout German landlady of Willesden Lane, Mrs Cohen, who encourages Lisa to pursue her dreams.
A celebrated concert pianist rather than a trained actress, Golabek isn’t able to completely transform herself into these characters. But she cleverly uses the piano to evoke fragments of the story – from the urgent practicing of her scales before her audition, to the rat-a-tat-tat staccato of the sewing machine at the textiles factory. A spellbinding pianist, it’s when Golabek touches the keys that the story truly soars.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is on at St James Theatre from 20th January 2015 until 27th February 2016, for further information or to book visit here.