REVIEW: Preludes (Southwark Playhouse)

Tonight was the press night of Preludes. Mummy was not there because she is not an important press person. Mummy is the writer of a predominantly family-focused blog who unnecessarily refers to herself in the third person and is overly fond of parentheses (which is the pretentious way that a more eminent writer might refer to brackets). Far from a professional critic, Mummy has a regular readership of two (being Mrs Mummy and Auntie Poppins) and even they couldn’t bring themselves to read her review of Horrible Histories. You might question why Mummy bothers. Who is she writing for? More to the point, if Mummy saw the first preview of Preludes almost a week ago, why is she only just getting around to writing about it now? Wouldn’t it have been sensible to get in there early, and publish her thoughts before all the proper press? (Mummy is aware that there is a debate about whether one should review a preview at all but reckons that – given everything else she is about to say – that’s probably ok on this occasion….)

As it happens, Mummy has only just managed to collect those thoughts following last Friday’s trip to the Southwark Playhouse. After a bout of blogger’s block, she finally managed to mentally compose her review on a spin bike at the gym this evening. Regular readers may be feeling that, even for Mummy, this is quite the digression. But for once Mummy is very much on topic. And while this may not read like an ordinary review, Preludes is far from an ordinary show.

Dave Malloy’s work is a revolutionary piece that tackles the topic of mental health in the arts and poses probing questions about the subjectivity of art and the meaning of success. It challenges creatives to consider why and for whom they create their works, while asking audiences (and critics) if there is a right way to consume them. In what Mummy thinks makes this the most meta of musicals, there is also something of a recurring theme about whether it is preferable to write music that is clever or something simply joyful. This has resulted in Mummy and Mrs Mummy having a debate about what it means to be ‘meta’. Suffice to say, Preludes is certainly the sort of musical that makes you think. Mrs Mummy has now disengaged from this debate on the basis that she doesn’t want to think. Although she maintains that Preludes was brilliant. Mummy has tried to engage her in a further conversation about whether it is possible to think something is brilliant but nonetheless not be sure whether you actually enjoyed it. And whether you were actually supposed to enjoy it in the first place. But Mrs Mummy has sought solace in a screen. (Mrs Mummy would like to point out that she came home from Preludes last week wanting to have deep and meaningful conversations. But tonight she wants to watch telly.)

Mummy’s decision to see Preludes came during a busy week at work which coincided with back to school week for the munchkins. Clearly musical theatre was the only antidote. Fortunately, Mummy did not research Preludes before booking it. A musical set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff as he seeks to cure his writer’s block following a three year bout of depression is probably not quite the mindless escapism that Mummy was after. On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t the sort of show that you could nod off in after a busy week. Often intense and sometimes surreal, Preludes is an assault on the senses that challenges the form of musical theatre.

Malloy masterfully fuses Rachmaninoff’s music with his own compositions in a range of musical styles. Trance music and strobe lighting help provide a sense of heightened reality, which is added to by the splitting of the protagonist into two characters; Tortured composer Rach (Keith Ramsay) and ever-present pianist Rachmaninoff (Tom Noyes). Both are superb. From the moment Ramsay steps on stage, he is captivating, sustaining an incredible level of intensity throughout a show during which he is barely off stage. His characterisation was so nuanced last Friday that Mummy could hardly believe she was witnessing a first preview. Her front row seat also gave her a perfect view of Noyes’ impressive ivory tinkling (on a piano which sits on top of a stage shaped like a piano, flanked by two keyboards (played by Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant)).

The rest of the exceptional cast is made up of Rebecca Caine (hypnotherapist, Dahl), Georgia Louise (Rachmaninoff’s fiancee, Natalya), Nortin James (opera singer, Chaliapin) and Steven Serlin (The Master, a series of famous figures). They work well as an ensemble but each also embodies their own character (or in the case of Serlin, characters) effortlessly. Together they take the audience on an enthralling journey that ranges from chaotic to cathartic, with just the right balance of comedy thrown in.

Preludes is certainly very different. It challenges the form and its audience and, in so doing, is probably not a musical for the masses. But then it almost certainly doesn’t intend to be. It’s a thought-provoking piece of work that raises important issues whilst raising the bar for the modern musical. Given the themes raised in the show (and the fact that she technically didn’t see the polished press-ready product), Mummy isn’t sure that she should give it any sort of rating. But if she did, it would involve the number 5.

Preludes is booking at the Southwark Playhouse until 12 October 2019.