Theatre: Tickled by the ivories

TWO PIANOS, FOUR HANDS BIRMINGHAM REP
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The Independent Culture
GENETIC ENGINEERING is going to give an even more complicated twist to the scenarios aired in this delightful show now receiving its British premiere. A recent cartoon displayed a scowling, five-year-old at the keyboard, arms folded, evidently on strike. "And to think what I paid for your genes," snarled the child's overbearing mother. Charting the trials of youthful piano practising and of specialising in a field where many are called but few are chosen, Two Pianos, Four Hands shows that this activity was already a hefty pain-in-the-wrist before the days of designer babies and the extra guilt and recrimination it will cause.

An Off-Broadway hit, this semi-autobiographical piece is created and performed by two engaging Canadians, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, a cross between the Labeque sisters and a more sophisticated version of Reeves & Mortimer. Put either of these actors in a play and you could entirely avoid that awful moment where a character retreats to the other side of the piano and mimes kneeding bread on an instrument that appears to be throwing its voice to the wings. These guys can act and give those ivories a good seeing-to, and then some.

The point, though, is that their intensive adolescent training resulted in the realisation, around the age of 17, that a career as a soloist was not on the cards. From the first faltering lessons through to the boozy rueful retrospection of adulthood, the show traces a would-be prodigy's progress.

Jeremy Sams stages the piece with a nice wit and a pleasing clarity. Two Steinways in jigsaw-fit stand on a large disk whose black-and-white pattern matches the white tie and tails of the artist. A tall translucent surround allows the performers to go off and create, say, the giant silhouettes of over-demanding parents. In a lovely droll touch that's like truancy a deux, Dykstra and Greenblatt take it in turns to keep a Mozart sonata going while the other nine-year-old self repeatedly skives off to the loo. As someone currently haranguing small children to practice, I blushed with recognition at the blackmailing techniques. Their subtext is often: "Just think what I could have achieved, if I'd been as lucky as you and had me as a father." It's a no-win situation for both child and parents. As we see here, there will be regrets and recriminations either way, not to mention the Schadenfreude of the eventual teacher (and failed practitioner) who tells you that you've misused your talents and aren't good enough.

Keeping their audience tantalised to the end, Dykstra and Greenblatt finished with some mesmerising Bach and then, as an encore, a rather camp arrangement of "Maple Leaf Rag". A damn fine way to treat two Steinways.

Paul Taylor

To 13 February (0121-236 4455)

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