Theatre; Virtuoso Wolsey, Ipswich

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The lid of the grand piano on David Knapman's highly symbolic set trails to the ground like the broken wing of a bird. That's not too fanciful a flight of imagery, since the instrument in question belongs to John Ogdon, the brilliantly dynamic pianist and the first Briton to win the Tchaikovsky prize in Moscow, whose career was maimed (for a time, paralysed) by excruciating mental illness.

William Humble has reworked his TV play of the same name, a programme memorable not just in itself but also for the Late Show discussion it generated afterwards. As dramatic as anything in the play proper was the look on the face of Ogdon's wife, Brenda Lucas, as it gradually dawned on her that she'd been knifed in the back. The chief assassin wasn't the author but Alison Steadman, a performer who seems to specialise in offering judgmental caricatures of the people she portrays. Despite her stabs at evoking the peculiar strain of being in that marriage, you could have been forgiven for thinking it boiled down to a case of monster and hazardous meal ticket.

If anything, Diane Fletcher, who plays Brenda in Caroline Smith's fine, absorbing production of the stage version, veers a smidgen too far in the opposite direction. Some of the tremendous force of this woman has been lost. Also somewhat blurred is the dichotomy in her devotion (Brenda was especially alive to the preciousness of Ogdon's gift since she was herself a talented pianist).

"I should have thought it was a privilege looking after a talent like John's," declares the wife of a composer, a touch acidly. As it digs down closer to the roots of Ogdon's madness, Virtuoso shows that looking after a talent like Ogdon's was no picnic for Ogdon either. And the dream- like, diagrammatic manner in which the play has been staged pulls into sharp focus the various rivals there were to Brenda for power and influence over him. Not least of these was his father who had also had a schizophrenic breakdown and spent two years in a mental hospital. Blowing raspberries on his trombone, this paternal precursor of the pianist's decline becomes, in John Grillo's performance, an antic spectral doppelganger. This figure only relinquishes posthumous hold over his son when an American psychiatrist identifies Ogdon's paranoid delusions as displaced guilt over the neglect of family occasioned by the booked-solid diary of the top-flight concert pianist.

With the help of a curly wig, false goatee and a great deal of excellent padding, that lean, balding clerical / scholarly actor, Oliver Ford Davies, makes an amazingly successful transformation into the gentle, obese, slow- speaking and chain-smoking Ogdon. Davies transmits a powerful sense of the pianist's double-edged sweetness and innocence, a function of the one-track mind that was a boon on the concert platform, less of a blessing in the home. Because of the dreadful weather conditions last weekend, the Times's critic and I were given a lift to the theatre by Mr Davies. A case of the accused driving the jury to court. Thank God the verdict is a resounding "not guilty".