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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mood Music
Old Vic Theatre  Spring 2018

Joe Penhall's new play is an expose that exposes too little that you don't already know, in a dramatic form that is clumsy as often as it is effective. There are a few strong performances, but too little else to attract your attention. 

The subject is the music business, and the play's news is that there are some real bastards there and that naive artists are likely to get screwed. 

An idealistic young singer-songwriter is paired by her record company with an experienced producer, who immediately starts changing her songs, demanding author credit, manipulating contracts so he gets the bulk of the royalties, and claiming awards as his own, all the time convincing her that this is all to benefit her career. 

Actor Ben Chaplin makes the guy a real sociopath who does this all without a hint of guilt, embarrassment or self-awareness, and the strongest source of drama in the play comes as every time he opens his mouth he says something even more outrageously self-serving than before. 

The guy is an utter monster, but Chaplin makes him scarily believable. 

Seana Kerslake is somewhat less successful with the singer. We can understand that she starts off so in awe of this veteran producer that she lets him manipulate her. 

But she never really grows, and when, at the end, she is given the option of getting back everything he and the record company stole from her or letting them win and just walking away, her choice is not really believable.

The play is structured almost entirely on a series of overlapping sessions each of the principals has with their respective psychiatrists, and later with their lawyers. 

While this feels like lazy playwriting, the author not having to invent occasions for people saying what he wants us to hear, Penhall generates some effective ironies in repeatedly giving us two versions of the same event or disagreement in close succession. 

He also extends the play's moral judgments by showing that each of the four secondary figures has an agenda that is not always in the best interests of their clients. 

The shrink played with seeming professional objectivity by Jemma Redgrave picks up on the opportunity to turn the girl into a feminist icon, while Pip Carter shows the producer's therapist finding it increasingly difficult to avoid moral outrage at the man's amorality. 

And Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke let the two lawyers repeatedly remind themselves that they're being paid by the record company and therefore have divided loyalties. 

Do we really have to be told that the music business is full of sharks who will chew up the naive and innocent, and might it be even more effective if the villain were not an obvious madman, but rather a faceless corporate bureaucrat​?(The record company is let off rather too lightly in Penhall's view of the business.) 

The too-believable monster that is the producer character and the vitality of Ben Chaplin's performance and, to a lesser extent, those of Redgrave and Carter are the attractions here, and that's not quite enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

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