Preludes (Southwark Playhouse)

Preludes (Southwark Playhouse, until October 12th)


A breathtaking synthesis of musical styles and an offbeat story that resonates through the ages could be the most exciting and mind-blowing UK premiere to hit a London stage this year.

Dave Malloy’s extravagant Preludes is outrageously anachronistic, compellingly creative and devastatingly frank as it dares to paint a picture of a cruel and heartless world that sneers at artists and imaginative geniuses, leaving them to clamber through a mental minefield of disappointment and inadequacy.

Those who can remember 1975 might recall Eric Carmen’s power ballad All By Myself, which famously had a tune based on the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor. This adventurous piece, ripping up the rulebook at Southwark Playhouse, could be subtitled “All by myself with my inner demons.”

In fact the official full title for Preludes is, “A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.” And a fantastic piece of musical theatre it truly is, as though Alice had gone through the rabbit hole into a musical dreamworld of esotericism. For this magnum opus isn’t a cheerful biography of a composer whose works regularly rank in the Top Ten classical favourites; rather it is the story of an artist crippled by depression, paranoia, anxiety and whose life is all but destroyed through a sense of failure.

The composer is driven to his frantic state first by overhhearing wherever he goes every pianist, great or grinding, tackling his Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, no. 2, written when he was just 19. What if it was the best thing he ever wrote, he wonders, and that one piece turned out to be the highlight of his legacy. Then, at the age of 24, he suffers the indignity of a disastrous first performance of his Symphony No. 1 in D Minor in St Petersburg, an under-rehearsed orchestra directed by an inebriated conductor which received savage reviews.

But, as the deepest recesses of Rachmaninoff’s surreal mind are explored through hypnotherapy (Rebecca Caine a thoughtful, calming and sympathetic Nikolai Dahl, “I’m a hypnotherapist – everything’s a metaphor”), the positive message is how the Arts can be used as therapy to restore a creative life, and how the right responses to a troubled mind can have their own healing and restorative power.

If it all sounds rather weird and eccentric that’s because it is. There can’t be many musicals set in a patient’s mind during a hypnotherapy session but that’s what happens here with dreamscape set and time-defying costumes (Rebecca Brower) both retro and contemporary and a thrilling score that manages to be a fusion of succulent classics, yodelling folk and idiosyncratic electro-pop.

Some of the music in this glorious mash-up is identifiably Rachmaninoff (there is a particularly haunting version of Bless the Lord, O My Soul from Vespers sung by the company which is spine-tingling) and the stirring second piano concerto trickles in and out of the proceedings with a playful tease. But much is also Malloy’s invention, suggested by the Romantic composer and then taken in fascinating and unexpected directions.

Rachmaninoff himself is represented by a “Rach Pack” of talented musicians: gifted Tom Noyes (making his assured debut) is the serious composer/performer, seated at a small grand piano which appears to have crashed onto the stage, while Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant handle the synths, sometimes adding weight to a piece, sometimes taking a tune and twisting it nightmarishly, sometimes providing a throbbing heartbeat to reflect the patient’s mental state.

Then, in a career-defining central performance, Keith Ramsay plays the nervy alter-ego, Rach, self-obsessed, Goth-like and wide-eyed as fantasy and reality combine in the therapist’s chair. In his mind he visits a host of Russian artistic geniuses (such as Chekhov, an angry old Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky, all interpreted with vigour by a crisp Steven Serlin, who also plays a visit to Tsar Nicholas II as a godfather making an offer that can’t be refused) who have their own critiques of his work which are both encouraging and disarming.

Virtuoso Ramsay makes the gawky Rach’s angst something infectious, transporting the historical disquietude into a timeless appreciation of any artist’s apprehensive uncertainty about their worth, a key consideration of accomplished director Alex Sutton.

Well-meaning and frustrated attempts by friends and family to support and understand are often misunderstood or cause more emotional damage. While we care about the composer’s state of mind we also have sympathy for those who valiantly try to help him.

As Rachmaninoff’s cousin and fiancée Natalya Georgia Louise exudes warmth and charm, Her Act One climax number Natalya is a thing of beauty, her soaring soprano exploring the depths of her lover’s tortured brain. The powerful duet she sings with Ramsay in the second act (Not Alone) is a triumph, a desperate hope that while the characters seem worlds apart love can find a way to restore their relationship as well as Rach’s creative brilliance.

Opera singer and Rach’s close friend Chaliapin is played by Norton James, an ursine and towering presence on the small stage with a bass baritone that underpins company numbers and boggles the senses in the psychedelic Loop exploring the darkest cavities of the composer’s brain.

Neon arches and atmospheric lighting (an artistically pulsing gem by Christopher Nairne) combined with pulsating sound which massages the emotions (Andrew Johnson) add to the overall sense of threat and energy in this astonishing masterpiece that haunts the mind well after the crashing chords and hallucinatory visions have subsided.

The frenetic musical reminds us that Rachmaninoff went on to compose some of the most beautiful and expressive music of the 20th Century, not necessarily conquering his demons but finding ways to channel them creatively. But it also provides a fillip to any artist plagued by a sense of failure or low self-esteem, showing how their very art can act as the transformative power that offers  true hope and meaning.

It is most definitely a Marmite musical which you’ll either love or loathe, but is without a doubt one of the most avant garde and thrilling pieces of theatre currently playing in London. This five star production is in a masterclass of its own.

David Guest

Image: Scott Rylander

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub