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The Theatreguide.London Review

Trafalgar Studios   Autumn 2010

Alessandro Baricco's 90-minute monologue, perhaps better known from the 1999 film adaptation starring Tim Roth, tells of a child born and abandoned on an ocean liner in 1900 and adopted by a sailor who names him after the year of his birth.

He grows up to become a brilliant self-taught jazz pianist and never gets off the ship, not even on shore leave.

The story is told by a trumpeter who joins the ship band in the 1920s, befriends the pianist, and comes to see him as a kind of holy man from the purity of his music and his life.

It is that last element that comes across most weakly in the monologue, as we are told a few too many times how wonderful the pianist's music is without anything more than gushing enthusiasm to go by.

And when Novecento gets to voice his philosophy it may move you but is just as likely to come across as muddled metaphysics and psychobabble.

Where the monologue, here in a nicely colloquial translation by Ann Goldstein, does shine is as a showcase for actor Mark Bonnar, who not only holds our attention throughout but creates a strong and believable sense of his own character and the trumpeter's love and admiration for his friend.

Bonnar is at his best when the script allows him to move from narration to re-enactment, bringing alive such moments as the wonder of those who first heard the boy play, the mounting panic of a storm at sea, and the tension of watching Novecento attempt his first steps off the ship.

The real climax of the narrative (which unfortunately comes in the middle, leaving the last half-hour to meander through dissipating energy) is a piano duel between Novecento and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton, who has come aboard just to challenge this mythic genius.

Playwright and actor bring us fully into the moment-by-moment tension of the encounter in what is by far the best sequence of the evening.

It is possible that what ends the evening - an extended self-explanation in Novecento's voice - will be equally real for you, but it just felt flat, wordy and anticlimactic to me.

Focus on the moments Mark Bonner brings alive, sit patiently through the rest, and the short evening can be satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Novecento - Trafalgar Studios 2010


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