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Mood Music, Old Vic, London, review: Joe Penhall's forceful play explores the relationship between commercialism and creativity

A young female recording artist wrangles with an older male producer 

Paul Taylor
Thursday 03 May 2018 12:18 BST
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Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in 'Mood Music'
Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in 'Mood Music' (Manuel Harlan)

There’s music and there’s the music industry. Though they are entangled with each other in complex ways, they are not to be confused. Joe Penhall’s forceful new play explores the vexed relationship between commercialism and creativity and the particular obstacles that this business throws in the path of women.

Two practitioners are seen in conversation with their respective therapists – later also with their lawyers. All the various, sparely suggested locations – recording studio, consulting room etc – are on stage at the same which the gives the play a marvellous fluidity and allows for an ironic counterpoint between these confabs.

Overhung by a forest of microphones, Roger Michell’s production has an incisive musical elegance. The subsidiary characters are sometimes free to wander as in a dream to the back of the massive thrust stage, but the rancorous main pair get no parole.

The bone of contention is the ownership of a hit song. Cat, a fast-rising young Irish singer-songwriter, has been denied a songwriting credit by middle-aged producer Bernard. He says that that “she had a vague idea which gave me a bigger idea”; she says he rearranged her musical ideas so that they sounded like his old songs and then stole the recognition.

Cat is branded a “diva” and a drama queen. Tired old prejudices are lobbed around – such as that women lack the “detachment” to write a classic song or that men have greater technical expertise rather than the grubbier advantage of being “better bullshitters”.

One similarity the pair have is that they are both significantly damaged people – as the brilliant performances by Ben Chaplin and Seana Kerslake demonstrate. Bernard is a sneering, perversely seductive monster of manipulative egoism. Quizzed about his first spouse, he reacts blankly as though asked a question about the inner life of Martians: “How could I possibly know what my wife was thinking?” He supports the theory expressed by Cat’s therapist that music attracts sociopaths who can connect through their instruments while playing.

Kerslake, by contrast, has a wonderful openness as the songwriter – giving you increasingly extended indications of the trauma behind her brandy-and-valium habit. Authenticity is important to her because she always felt a bit of a fraud with her father, a musician whose career collapsed in failure. Hence her rage at the false attribution.

There are some tantalising glimpses of writer and producer working together in the studio. They show the improvisatory nature of collaboration and the difficulties of establishing precisely who contributed what. I would have like more of these and less of the psychologising from the therapists, which tend to sound wooden and over-convenient: “Stealing an idea is an incredibly intimate form of betrayal”, and so on.

The industry’s lax sense of its duty to care to artists is explored in the legal wranglings of the second half. On her American tour, Cat got so wasted on drink and drugs that she had to be bundled unconscious on and off planes and trains. Federal kidnap is a crime – a fact that Cat’s lawyer is not slow to exploit. Will he able to trade dropping this charge in exchange for a songwriting credit? The background to this is appalling; the wheeler-dealing very funny.

“It’s time to change the balance of this industry. Within reason.” says his opponent, who is not one of nature’s feminists. Penhall’s play eloquently suggests that that may not be far enough.

Until 16 June (oldvictheatre.com)

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