Mood Music – The Old Vic

Mood Music - The Old Vic

Another week, another brand new play arrives in London, the fourth in as many weeks, and the second successive opening to focus on female creativity and the nature of toxic masculinity. Despite being obsessed with reflections of its own image, captured in films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard or TV shows including Smash, which have long reflected the the scheming arrogance, male-dominated power-structures, falsity and inherent cruelty of showbusiness, the entertainment industry, it seems, had barely changed in decades. Now, in the wake of successive scandals that began with Operation Yewtree and culminated in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, an unyielding light is shining into every corner.

The consequence of all this is the beginnings of a notable shift in how the various branches of commercialised art are managed and sustained, and these industries have rarely had to respond so readily to the widespread rot and abuses of power that have filled our newspages for many months. But will it really be so easy to dismantle? Joe Penhall’s new play Mood Music which opens at The Old Vic on Wednesday is set in the music industry, and examines the complex and tricky personalities whose deep and longstanding knowledge of how the ‘business’ works means they have become adept at manipulating every system, using their power to control everyone around them.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mood Music considers the ways in which male-dominated structures affect the creation of female art, where inspiration comes from, and the problematic border between collaboration and ownership within our existing creative environment. It asks important questions about the boundary between celebrating and recognising achievement in a more experienced creator, while not allowing your own contribution to be pushed aside, and the extent to which stars use their art and the adulation of others to fulfil a deep void in themselves.

Cat is a young female songwriter in the midst of a legal battle with middle-aged producer Bernard over the creative credit of her big song. Both insist they added the magic ingredient that made the song a hit and catapulted Cat to fame. But as the audience learns how their relationship became so acrimonious, shocking details of their working life together start to emerge as the entertainment lawyers attempt to build a case. With both parties also in therapy, embittered by their experiences, can they learn to be generous about each other’s art or will the business always win?

Penhall creates a multi-layered narrative which brings the audience into three different sets of conversation all happening simultaneously. The narrative is initially dominated by Bernard and Cat’s discussion with their therapists as they put forward their perspective, recount events and reveal what shaped their personalities, but quickly Penhall intersperses interactions with both their lawyers and occasionally restages scenes from their studio sessions. It sounds complex, but works extremely effectively in practice, allowing the play to break free of traditional scene structures, change shape and maintain a constant rhythm throughout its two-hour runtime.

And while it has plenty to say about the toxicity of the entertainment industry, where young hopefuls seemingly stand little chance of besting established figures with nothing to lose, this message is fairly subtle at first, becoming stronger and clearer as the story unfolds. This is no finger wagging piece of drama, yelling its message at the audience or deliberately exaggerating scenarios to create the right effect, but instead suggests a highly credible picture of people with nothing but their own interests to attend to.

Penhall trusts in the strength of his multifaceted central characters to essentially undo themselves, showing that while there may be minor fault on both sides, ultimately Bernard is all too real an archetype that whether you work in showbusiness, in a normal office or any other kind of workplace, you will know men who think like him. For all that, he is a fascinating creation and one that displays both the charm and enthusiasm for his work that attracts Cat to his talent in the first place, as well as the mind-blowing lack of empathy that make him entirely self-contained. And while you’re laughing at his coldness, Penhall’s trick is to let us see underneath just for a moment, not just to write him off as abominable, but to understand why. And if you understand why you can do something to change it.

Playing Bernard, Ben Chaplin is outstanding, managing to be completely engaging and utterly repellent at the same time. Careful not to muddy the focus with any suggestion of a sexual connection with Cat, Bernard sees himself as a perennial victim, delivering most of his lines with boredom, as if he cannot believe he’s in this ridiculous situation when everyone must know he wrote all the music. Chaplin offers a very clever performance that amplifies Bernard’s arrogance, selfishness and fatal lack of empathy, but without overstatement, he always feels unpleasantly real but charming enough that on more than one occasion you almost believe his version of events.

At the same time, Chaplin implies the grand delusion of a man who sees the world entirely on his own terms, and cannot conceive of anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or imagination. He suggests both strength and self-sufficiency as well as a tragic loneliness and an inability to genuinely connect to anyone else, driven by nods to his childhood experience. He is blinkered but doesn’t know it, and Chaplin gives life to one of Penhall’s key themes on the relationship between emotional damage and the need to seek control.

While Penhall’s female lead endures being patronised and pushed aside, she’s also full of human complexity that allow the audience sympathies to swing occasionally between the protagonists. It’s a cunning way to demonstrate how easily we are all manipulated by Bernard’s particular view of the facts – its not even that he twists them, he genuinely thinks his interpretation is right. Cat is given her own demons to contend with including addiction issues and frequent references to an idolised father that ensure her feeling towards Bernard remain ambiguous even well into to the legal dispute. None of this is meant to excuse Bernard’s conduct, but to demonstrate how young female behaviours are used to judge and condemn in a way they’re not for men.

Seana Kerslake gives Cat both a naievity about the industry and a determination to keep fighting for the right to own the music she created. As the play continues, Kerslake presents a complex picture of a young woman with her own emotional baggage that affects the personal and musical choices she makes, unable to control her impulse to escape and being forced into the shadows by her overbearing collaborator. We see a performer who becomes recognisably self-destructive in a way that many young artists have, but Kerslake plays this credibly as we see the effect on the relationships with those around her and a growing irritation with being controlled even by therapists and lawyers.

There is a degree of hero-worship in her response to Bernard that never entirely disappears, even when it becomes impossible to work together she still admires his talent, with Kerslake even suggesting a touch of regret that working with an idol has been so difficult. Her performance taps into some of Mood Music’s more difficult questions about whether the creation of great art is worth the pain of collaboration in an industry populated by ‘damaged’ people, and if individual brilliance is ever possible without someone to push an artist to their extremes.

The supporting cast are deliberately more anonymous and less rounded, used as reflections on the central characters or the industry that shapes them. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter are the therapists whose sympathetic air wanes as their clients begin to question what role they’re really playing in the power structure, while Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are the respective entertainment lawyers who try to play the system to get the best deal for their clients. Interesting to see Chaplin and Stuke in the same production having once played the same role in the 90s sitcom Game On.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s thrust stage that emulates a recording studio meets therapy session with a curtain of hanging microphones and scattered chairs, the design approach suggests both simplicity and complexity, reflecting the characters’ creative abilities but ultimately giving them nothing to hide behind. Director Roger Mitchell uses the full extent of the stage to keep the action flowing, which is particularly tricky in the rapid transitions between conversations that in the space of a line can switch to an entirely different scenario, time and place. But ultimately, Mitchell and Bechtler provide a showcase for the characters, allowing them to reveal their own failings to the audience.

Mood Music’s focus on ownership in collaboration is a fascinating and engaging examination of the power structures in the entertainment industry, and while it may seem petty for the characters break down a single song to fight over every bridge, chord or lyric, when art is for sale, personal and professional betrayal are never far behind – the overriding commercialisation of every piece of art means that ultimately the winner will always be the industry and never the creator.

Mood Music is at The Old Vic until 16 June and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 400 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “Mood Music – The Old Vic

  • Red – Wyndhams Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating […]

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I went to see this on your recommendation yesterday – or, to be more accurate, I would have preferred Nine Night but my friend thought a 90 minute interval-free piece about a funeral wouldn’t be any fun. I bet it was still more life-affirming than Mood Music but I agreed we’d get off the train at Waterloo and if there were good cheap seats at the Old Vic we’d go there rather than the Dorfman.

    I was a bit sniffy about Joe Penhall after Sunny Afternoon. There, knowing Penhall’s reputation, I’d rather expected a decent play with perhaps some dodgy cover versions of the Kinks’ songs. As it happened, I thought it was a threadbare script rescued by some surprisingly good cover versions of the songs.

    Mood Music was, I thought, rather better despite a few (imo) glaring weaknesses. I approach at a different angle from yours, though, as I don’t have your positive view of the ‘Me Too’ phenomenon which I consider childish, sectarian and probably counter-effective. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a problem with predatory behaviour by people in positions of power: I do, and I always have. It’s that I don’t think Twitter storms, demands for unconditional belief and a morbid focus on any offence no matter how ancient or how trivial will help. It’s interesting that there are a couple of productions of The Crucible in the near future (and one just finished). John Proctor’s question ‘Is the accuser always holy now?’ is being answered in the affirmative by many on Twitter – a medium ideally suited for ‘little crazy children jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance [writing] the law’. Will anyone be listening to Miller’s warning – or, indeed, to Oscar Wilde’s scathing attacks on jumping to conclusions or holding people up to impossibly high (and hypocritical) standards in the plays at the Vaudeville recently; I hope so, because I’m not confident a new play making those points would get staged in the current climate.

    I don’t, however, think Penhall’s play is what some commentators seem to presume. For all that he’s an unsympathetic character Bernard’s observation that ‘In show business, people offer themselves up in the hope of being exploited’ is a valid one. I saw it too often when I worked in music pubs to doubt the truth of it. Indeed, Penhall might have slipped that truth into the script via the most unsympathetic character to give himself the option of deniability. I also didn’t think the theme (the one of the effect of such conditions on vulnerable people) applies specifically to female artists (arguably it’s patronising even to assume such a thing just because the sex of the central character in the play happens to be as it is). At the interval a woman next to us asked if the characters represented any real life artists – Amy Winehouse for example – and we both thought they were entirely fictional. But it occurred to me that Cat could just as easily be Syd Barrett, Peter Green or anyone who had, to borrow a term used about the wonderful Nick Drake, ‘a skin too few’.

    I thought a strength of the play was the way the narcissism in the business extended way beyond one example of ‘toxic masculinity’. The therapists sometimes seem more concerned with interpreting things in a way that made their contribution central than in listening to their clients. And the lawyers – nothing new here – like things arranged so they make most money. I also think some good points were made about sexist assumptions regarding the contributions of collaborators in popular music. I don’t think many people (certainly not many I knew) were under the illusion that Carole King or Joni Mitchell are mere warblers but I must confess to being ignorant for many years of, for example, how important Sandy Denny was in the writing and arranging of some of Fairport Convention’s best songs. But, as I said earlier, there were a few rather unconvincing aspects of the drama. Perhaps the worst was the way Penhall overplayed his hand with the awards ceremony scene. I seriously wondered if he was trying to get audience sympathy for Bernard whose need for attention and astonishing lack of self knowledge made him a laughing stock. The trouble is, it just didn’t ring true; whereas until then Ben Chaplin had been so good he could almost have been one of those musicians – high on self importance, low on self awareness – to whom I used to serve beer all those years ago. The mannerisms were spot on. Secondly, and almost inevitably, was the problem inherent in portraying brilliant musicians: you need some brilliant original music to back it up. I’m afraid the first thing I did when I got home was to dust off my copy of Saxophone Colossus; and if Cat was brought up with Sonny Rollins* the inspiration wasn’t evident in the snatches of song we heard in Mood Music. Mercifully, though, we weren’t subjected to too many of them.

    Overall, Mood Music wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be – indeed there was a fair bit to like about it – but I won’t now see Nine Night, which is a shame, as I picked up a standing place for The Way of the World for Saturday (I had to pass the Donmar on my way to Euston so I popped in and was lucky). I look forward to reading your review and passing on my comments.

    *I couldn’t help wondering whether, in a play where narcissism and mental illness were obvious themes, the fact that two central characters should have been united by an admiration for Rollins was deliberate. I stress I’m not making any observations about Rollins himself (though, like many musicians, he certainly had issues with drugs); but the fact is that two of his greatest albums are the aforementioned Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness!

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – thanks for this detailed comment on the play, and very interesting to see your response filtered through your knowledge of the music industry and experience of meeting performers.

      I know very little about the music in the show I’m afraid to say and I’m glad you enjoyed aspects of this, if overall it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory experience for you.

      Penhall apparently wrote the play before the current focus on exploitation and sexism in various industries – which as you say quite rightly are not an exclusively female experience, although shining a light on dark corners cannot be a bad thing overall. I felt that sympathy deliberately moves around during the play, so while Cat is largely in a position of weakness, fighting against the might of the industry, she’s not entirely without fault (which points to your Crucible comment).

      I completely agree about manipulative approach of the therapists which Penhall uses to suggest that the people supposedly there to help us also have their own agenda. Chaplin though was superb and an actor whose work you should always see. I thought he brought considerable complexity to what could have been a pantomime villain, and if you recognised traits from the musicians you’ve met, then he’s done his job very well.

      I’m sorry you missed Nine Night, I covered that for The Reviews Hub recently and thought it was excellent. No depressing funerals to worry about, but an intricate and, often hilarious, portrait of a conflicted family who could have considerable life after the play’s conclusion.

      I hope you enjoy Way of the World, it’s some time now since I reviewed it so I’d imagine it’s changed a fair bit and I hear it has settled well.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I’m not at all sure that shining light in dark corners is worth the candle if we end up flooded with inconsequential information. It seems to me there is an avalanche of decontextualised, unsubstantiated bleating; and people guilty of misdemeanours (if anything) having their lives ruined while we still have yet to see a single charge against Weinstein. Meanwhile, we might have to come to terms with the possibility that Harvey Proctor – for years a byword for sleaze – might turn out to be innocent of the most serious allegations against him (what a name, btw – half Harvey Weinstein, half John Proctor!) while an anonymous accuser whose every word was believed as a matter of policy might turn out to be a pathological liar. Incidentally, to continue the Crucible theme, I forgot to mention that when Cat was given the agreement to sign I instantly thought ‘she’s going to sign, then rip it up’. As it happened, she omitted the actual signing but, like John Proctor, she played along for a bit before tearing up the paper. Coincidence?

    Chaplin and Stuke were, as you say, very good. I remember Game On as utter rubbish but I think the same of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and yet have seen very fine stage performances from Kathryn Drysdale, Ralf Little and, most notably, Sheridan Smith. Matthew Kelly, too, has never been less than embarrassing in the few things I’ve seen on TV but he’s one of the finest, and most versatile, stage actors I’ve seen. I’m still not expecting to see Samantha Janus as Mother Courage. Is that prejudice or just realism, do you think?

    Chaplin’s performance reminded me of Robert Lindsay’s cameo in Absolutely Fabulous only much darker. Lindsay’s character, Pete, has the same laid back feel as Bernard but none of the menace. If you haven’t seen it, check out the episode Schmoozin’ in series 5. There’s a priceless exchange where the superb June Whitfield is vetting Pete (Edi’s new/old boyfriend). Having established that he is now in the music business she asks “The music business. The music….business. What exactly is that? Explain” He also reminded me of Jason Watkins in Frozen. To use your description he makes Bernard, like Ralph, engaging and repellent at the same time; though, of course, in a rather different way.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Thanks for this additional comment. While I take your point, the current climate is creating an opportunity for change which is much needed. James Graham has alerted us to the dangers of passing judgement based on media speculation alone, and we shouldn’t be complacent about the experiences of those who feel voiceless.

      For theatre particularly this has two useful consequences; it is bringing more diverse stories and artists into mainstream theatre and, second, it is forcing theatre-makers to better consider their duty of care to all members of the cast, crew and permanent staff which we hope will create a more inclusive climate.

      Politics aside and back to Mood Music, I like your comparison with Absolutely Fabulous, how well that comedy still stands up. And a wonderful idea that Bernard is somewhere between Jason Watkins and Robert Lindsay performances.

      Do let me know how The Way of the World is performing now and thanks again.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “how well that comedy still stands up”

    Apologies for drifting off topic (and, perhaps, straying vaguely into politics again) but I must say I think Absolutely Fabulous is an astonishing achievement. It almost goes without saying that it’s brilliantly written and boasts a cast list that most TV series could only dream of; but for me it’s one of the most important works in recent popular culture. Jennifer Saunders created a world where all the major characters were women but steered well clear of apotheosis or demonisation of the female. As in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls men are sidelined (Churchill even makes the waiter a woman; Saunders has a few semi-detached and peripheral male characters) but the piece doesn’t really seem to be ‘about’ women. For me, the message of both works is that if we are to see meaningful change we need to address things more fundamental than gender. I love both but I think it’s fair to say Ab Fab is funnier than Top Girls!

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