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 The Theatreguide.London Review



Piano/Forte
Royal Court Theatre     Autumn 2006

Terry Johnson is a playwright of proven inventiveness and wit, but his new play seems to be a case of both qualities running away with him in an exhausting display of uncontrolled excess.

What appears to have started out as a half-parodic comic melodrama becomes the very thing being parodied, with wave upon wave of over-the-topness eventually overpowering an exhausted audience - in spite of the fact that much of it was quite legitimately funny along the way.

The play focuses on the two adult daughters of a disgraced former-politician-turned-media-whore (Think a mix of Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton).

Both women were damaged by his coldness and the long-ago suicide of their mother, one becoming agoraphobic and withdrawn to the point of near-catatonia, the other manically promiscuous and self-destructive.

Now, on the occasion of father's third marriage to a model his daughters' age (A second wife is in a loony bin somewhere), the wild one returns home to cause as much embarrassment and pain as she can.

What might in a different play be the occasion for cathartic truth-telling or character growth is buried under a mix of gags, soap opera clichés and plot loose ends so that even the moments of cathartic truth-telling and character growth can go nowhere.

To demonstrate her inhibitions, the mousy sister is given an impenetrable stammer, while in her desperate need to be shocking the wild one plays a whole scene topless (not that I'm complaining).

By the time she has brought in a troupe of Spanish pornographic aerialists to interrupt the wedding, a Hitchcockian flock of birds has attacked the house, charges of actual or wished-for incest have been levied, and the hint has been raised and then dropped that one of the girls might be just a wish-projection of the other (as in the film Fight Club), the audience is justifiably reeling, uncertain what's going on and unable to distinguish the deliberate jokes from the unintended ones.

And this in spite of the fact that there are legitimate jokes that do work, and there is real invention here. This is not the failure of someone who can't write a play, but of a talented playwright who has let his imagination escape his control.

Acting as his own director, Terry Johnson evidently didn't ask his cast to be much more than cartoons. As the shy sister Alicia Witt does little but pout, like a young Sandy Dennis on downers, while Oliver Cotton plays father as generic Unpleasant Egotist and Danny Webb makes a perhaps-too-loving uncle an unobtrusive straight man.

Natalie Walter seems never to have been told whether the new bride is airheaded or surprisingly mature, and alternately makes half-hearted attempts at both.

Only Kelly Reilly as the wild sister manages hints of anything below the surface in the sadness of one working so desperately hard at being offensive.

I repeat that there is a lot of invention here, and if you don't ask for it to add up to anything coherent or to make much sense from one moment to the next, you can enjoy each moment as it goes by. But most people ask for more than that from a play.

Gerald Berkowitz



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Review of  Piano/Forte - Royal Court Theatre 2006
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