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Mood Music review
The Old Vic, London
Until June 16, 2018
By Michael Burland
Mood Music has been created by some heavy hitters of the British stage, directed by Roger Michell, starring Olivier-nominated Ben Chaplin, and written by Joe Penhall. Penhall is mainly known for two shows – Blue/Orange, a psychological drama about sanity and prejudice, and Sunny Afternoon, the smash-hit musical based on the story of British rock band The Kinks and the conflicts that fueled them. You can see where he was going with Mood Music.
It is a black comedy about music, but emphatically not a singalong musical. It pits Cat, a young, psychologically damaged rising star (Seána Kerslake) against ageing, sociopathic producer – or "artist-producer" as he insists – Bernard (Chaplin), fighting ostensibly over a songwriting credit but in reality over much more.
There are plenty of jokes for musos and showbiz execs to enjoy but 'civilians' will get, and enjoy, them too. Mood Music explores the clash between the two protagonists but also those between music as art and the music industry. Also going head to head are Cat and Bernard versus their respective psychiatrists (Pip Carter and the wonderful Jemma Redgrave), and their lawyers (Kurt Egyiawan and a hilarious turn by Neil Stuke) versus each other ...and versus their clients.
Mood Music sounds better than it looks – as befits a play about music and the business of making it. The complex web of relationships is brilliantly illustrated by the staging. Over an enormous thrust stage, dozens of microphones dangle threateningly buy their cables. The rest of the set consists of a few metal-framed chairs and an enviable array of musical instruments, sadly not used to their full advantage as the play progresses.
The story is told through another complex web, of cross-conversations between the characters, jumping between the present and multiple flashbacks like musical counterpoints, the actors are meticulously choreographed around the stage, enabling the snippets of dialogue to unfold as elegantly as does the script.
The timing of the production couldn't be better, with sexual predation, bullying and the exploitation of women in the entertainment industry so much in the news. But Mood Music is not just a Me Too/Time's Up diatribe. It is as much about the nature of creativity and how great (as opposed to merely good) art can depend on damaged individuals and their rejection of – and dependence on – collaborators. Bernard is borderline psychopathic, but Cat can be 'difficult' too, and both feed musically off the other.
There are many reasons to go see this viciously black comedy, but chief among them is Ben Chaplin's totally believable monster.