Southwark Playhouse – until 12 October 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Described as a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dave Malloy’s weird and wonderful musical is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
After his first symphony failed to set the musical world alight, Rachmaninoff spiralled into depression, unable to compose until his therapy with Nicolai Dahl, following which his glorious Piano Concerto no.2 was completed.
Malloy splits Rachmaninoff into two separate entities – the calm composed pianist performing centre stage (Tom Noyes – superb) and Rach (Keith Ramsey – astonishingly raw), the tormented soul who is struggling to find music or joy in his life. Rach is wild-eyed, big-haired and looks like he’s escaped from the Bat out of Hell cast – completely out of time and place in his isolated mental state. Natalya (Georgia Louise), his fiancée/cousin, and Chaliapin (Norton James), his opera singer friend and constant supporter are shown to be present at pivotal moments in Rach’s composing career through flashbacks/therapy, alongside the ominous presence of The Master (Steven Serlin), who takes on the personas of Rach’s (and Russia’s) heroes, always disappointing Rach, and never giving him the affirmation he so desperately needs. Watching all this, hawk-like, is Dahl (Rebecca Caine – just wait until she sings!).
Director Alex Sutton, Rebecca Brower (set design), Christopher Nairne (lighting design) and Andrew Johnson (sound design) have created a nightmarish dreamscape for Rach. A set of concentric trapezoid frames light and pulse with appropriate colour and pulse as Rach’s self-doubt and psychosis ebb and flow. Keyboard players Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant sit either side of the stage with Rachmaninoff’s grand piano an oasis of calm in the centre (This is where Rach retreats when things get too much – curled up under the piano.) Rachmaninoff’s music is performed as solos by Noyes on the piano, but also overlain with electronic keys and electro beats depending on Rach’s mental state. Some of the arrangements are beautiful, making your heart soar, while others set your teeth on edge and are very uncomfortable to listen to, accompanied by disturbing light effects and surreal performances that make you question your own sanity.
Rach’s journey back to self-belief and peace after such public failure isn’t easy to watch, it is horrifying, frustrating, repetitive and unsettling, but also uplifting, life-affirming and simply beautiful. Just like life itself. Malloy has managed to distil so much familiar trauma and emotion into this show that it can speak to everyone who is lucky enough to see it. One of this Autumn’s must-see shows.