The lens through which we see plays is being refocused. By playwrights and by the outside world. When a young woman and an older man appear together, I have come to assume that sexual bullying will be the dramatic subject. Well, that is an element in Mood Music. But Joe Penhall’s new play is also more unexpected.
A recording artist and a record producer are wrangling about which of them really wrote a hit song. She – a rapt, intense, extraordinary Seána Kerslake – is young, talented and vulnerable, determined above all to be authentic. He – a marvellously caustic, lizardly Ben Chaplin – knows how to sell a number and wants control. Their quarrel is conducted through lawyers and therapists – Jemma Redgrave, impenetrably controlled, is particularly convincing – who employ routine descriptions of behaviour: “unacceptable”, “inappropriate”. But there are other more intricate uses of language and more unexpected arguments – about music as addiction, about the difficulty of attributing credit when there is any degree of collaboration. The most callous person on stage is the one who most often invokes “humanity”. There is a very funny anti-glockenspiel moment in one of the too few musical scenes.
Some of this is over-emphasised. Chaplin’s cocky contempt – “I’m no stranger to greatness” – is too often spelt out. We will, I suppose, know when equality is approaching when a woman is obviously the shit and the man a sensitivo. Still, Roger Michell, one of the most subtle and patient of directors, makes much of the action extraordinarily telling. He paces what risks being mere debate as if it were conversation; abstractions begin to seem solid. Hildegarde Bechtler’s design – a bare space cluttered with guitars and overhung by mics –conjures new depths out of the Old Vic.
Mood Music fuses concerns that run through Penhall’s earlier work: the interest in psychiatric intervention that fuelled Blue/Orange and the response to music and the music industry that made his Kinks musical, Sunny Afternoon, such a triumph. He also knows something about musical quarrelling. When his collaboration with the band’s Ray Davies broke down, their relationship, according to Penhall, “rotted into a cancerous feud”.
Non-feuding Abba announced an avatar tour in the same week that Chess (music by Benny and Björn, lyrics by Tim Rice) had its first major West End revival since 1986. Chess the game requires stealth, scepticism, subterfuge. Chess the musical, in Laurence Connor’s production, supplies non-stop revelation and blare. The sheer anger of the evening is exhausting: wall-to-wall bellowing.
Overplotted but underwritten, the show looks at the cold war through the competition between Russian and American chess wizards, the latter loosely based on Bobby Fischer but here called – yes really! – Trumper. It features defection, adultery, corruption and political machination, but little human motivation.
There is a lushly varied score – big rock, big ballads, twiddly nods to Gilbert and Sullivan. At the Coliseum there is richly voiced Phillip Brown, and (though not enough) Alexandra Burke, bringing power to the thankless role of abandoned Soviet wife. She and Cassidy Janson triumph in I Know Him So Well. But Connor’s production magnifies without clarifying. The singers are mugged by gigantic video projections of themselves. It is hard enough to hear the words anyway; the time-lapse between flesh and video make this even tougher. In a kind moment I wondered if the aim was metaphorical: to show individuals dwarfed by actions bigger than themselves. In a remorseful one I wondered if it was helpful to see giant uvulas and beads of sweat on a screen if, unlike a stalls-seated critic – you are perched far from the action. I didn’t convince myself.
And nothing alleviates the clod-hopping stereotypes. Italian Tyrol – perky dirndls and plaits; Soviet chaps: goose-stepping or sloshed. In an excruciating Bangkok sequence the ensemble is got up as ladyboys and sex workers. None of this is sharp or funny enough to count as satire. They would have been better off with avatars.
With uncanny timing Natasha Gordon’s first play opened the day after Amber Rudd handed in her resignation. Nine Night pivots on the death of a woman who came to London on the Windrush; the title is taken from the Caribbean custom of nine days of mourning.
The wake play – in which in crisis a family is brought together and blown apart – has a long reach in a gathering that includes one woman left as a child in Jamaica and, towards the end, some otherworldliness. Still, Gordon’s strength is not in structure: several plot lines are pulled out as if from a ball of wool and left limply unknitted into the drama. What is lovely about Nine Night is the roll of speeches: delivered tautly by Franc Ashman, explosively by Michelle Greenidge and magnificently by Cecilia Noble. It is perplexing that Noble is not constantly starring on stage. She is a one-woman stampede of talent. As an interfering auntie she comes on quaking – every bit of her looks molten – with eccentricity and self-esteem. She has many of the juiciest observations. She reacts to news that a nine-month-old baby is still breastfeeding by declaring that the mite must be longing for a piece of chicken. Popping down from the side of the corpse, she proclaims: “People think that because you dead you don’t need Vaseline.” She goes on to quiver as a spirit channel – powerful enough to make you believe there are ghosts in the wings.
Roy Alexander Weise – a name to watch – directs with brio, helped by Rajha Shakiry’s brightly detailed 70s design: spider plants, antimacassars, chairs around a table as if the family might actually eat together. Also helping to steer the action is the great lighting designer Paule Constable. She lent War Horse its spectral quality as well as warmth; here she supplies both family glow and the eerie arrival of shades from another world, easing an audience silently into the unexpected. Last week she warned that her profession was under threat from new EU regulations banning out-of-date theatre lights. Her alarm cry is one of the best pieces of theatre writing around.
Star ratings (out of 5)
Mood Music ★★★★
Nine Night ★★★
• Mood music is at the Old Vic until 16 June. Box office: 0844 871 7628
• Chess is at the Coliseum until 2 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300
• Nine Night is at the Dorfman, London until 26 May. Box office: 020 7452 3000