I Found My Horn
Tristan Bates Theatre December 2008; Orange Tree Theatre February 2009; Hampstead Theatre November 2009; Trafalgar Studios Spring 2014
It's a human interest news story that pops up every once in a while – a successful businessperson whose midlife crisis leads to a dramatic change of occupation or artistic ambition.
In the 1980s the American millionaire publisher Gilbert Kaplan decided he wanted to be a symphony conductor, studied for a year, hired an orchestra and more-or-less pulled it off.
On a more modest note, British journalist Jasper Rees recently decided in his forties to take up the French horn, which he hadn't played for 25 years (and not all that well back then), and gave himself a year to become good enough to perform in public.
His memoir of the adventure was published this year, and now actor Jonathan Guy Lewis has taken advantage of the coincidence that he is also a horn player of modest talent to turn Rees' story into an entertaining solo show.
Rees' book includes digressions on the history of horns and thoughts on the various composers who have written for it, but Lewis wisely limits himself to the purely human story, capturing all its absurdity as well as its emotional ups and downs.
Of course, the British have always loved the amateur eccentric, and there is something inevitably uplifting and inspirational in this quixotic adventure. But it is also inherently silly.
As several of the musicians Jasper meets remind him, the French horn is possibly the most difficult and treacherously uncontrollable instrument to play, even for them.
And one of the nicest touches of this adaptation is that Lewis does not fall into the sentimental trap of making Jasper triumph. When we reach the climactic public performance, Lewis makes him play adequately – no better - while also hilariously showing us all the player's inner torment.
Other comic highlights are an opening depiction of the musician's version of the classic Actor's Nightmare - naked onstage with an instrument he's never seen before and music he can't read - and the memory of his adolescent misadventures with the horn the first time around.
Lewis also plays several of the teachers and mentors - British, German and American - that Jasper meets in his journey, all of them lovingly portrayed as at least as mad as he, and instinctively sympathetic to his quest.
It's a small piece, just over an hour long, but, under Harry Burton's sensitive direction, it never wavers from just the right mix of admiration for the adventurer and awareness of his inherent ridiculousness.
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Review of I Found My Horn - Tristan Bates Theatre 2008