Mood Music at The Old Vic
It’s easy to praise Mood Music for its #TimesUp timeliness. Joe Penhall takes a scalpel to the music biz, digging into the gender politics of a songwriting dispute that not only has shades of Kesha and Dr Luke, but a whole host of depressingly familiar resonances in terms of how women are belittled, undermined and violated in any industry.
Under the starry night of designer Hildegard Bechtler’s eavesdropping microphones, Bernard (Ben Chaplin) and Cat (Seana Kerslake) have made an album together. He’s ostensibly the all-round musical genius and she the humble singer. Oh, if only it were that simple. The pair can’t agree on who deserves the songwriting credit for their breakout hit, a disagreement that quickly reveals a set of harmful power dynamics and provides an insidious example of how the odds are stacked against women in the workplace.
It’s a snappy, sharp, smart play. Unfortunately, Mood Music comes a week after the open of Ella Hickson’s furious and formally exhilarating The Writer. And though the two don’t cover anywhere near exactly the same ground, there are enough similarities that Roger Michell’s production can’t help but seem a bit sedate and middle-aged in comparison.
Not that Penhall’s drama is completely free of its own structural intrigue. The piece is actually a bit reminiscent of listening to music. The various strands – Bernard and Cat’s respective conversations with lawyers, therapists and each other – are almost always present together; what changes is which thread is at the forefront. It’s as if guitar, bass and drums are all taking their turns in the spotlight without ever disappearing completely.
The leads are also excellent. Chaplin is positively slick with smarm and condescension, a fragile egomaniac willfully ignorant of – or simply unaffected by – the (regular) damage he inflicts. Kerslake arguably has even more to do, and she does it brilliantly, balancing self-doubt with self-confidence, resignation with an inability to let things go on as they are.
Maybe this performance would be better served by some livelier direction. In a sort of pointless, half-empty thrust of staging, Michell can’t quite get the pulse racing. And from the stalls, at least, the blocking actively prevents a visual connection with the playwright’s overlapping dialogues.
In The Writer, Hickson is keen to push beyond combative dialectics, while admittedly acknowledging their seductive appeal dramatically. Penhall, on the other hand, is content to stack such discussions on top of each other, weaving multiple legal, emotional and artistic battles together into one big rope to be tugged to and fro. Mood Music is not bad by any means; it’s just inadvertently up against some mightily stiff competition.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Mood Music is at The Old Vic from 21st April until 16th June 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.