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Mood Music at the Old Vic, London – review round-up

Seana Kerslake in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton Seana Kerslake in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Mood Music sounds great. It’s directed by Roger Michell, a big-shot name in stage and screen who most recently took the reins of Nina Raine’s Consent at the National. It stars the Olivier-nominated Ben Chaplin, who earned plaudits for his role in the same play, and for his TV turn in the BBC drama Apple Tree Yard. And it’s written by Joe Penhall.

Penhall’s playwriting career started in the early nineties, but it was his multi-award-winning 2000 play Blue/Orange that made his name. Since then, he’s worked extensively for theatre, film and TV. He adapted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the big screen, he wrote the book for the smash-hit Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon and he created the binge-worthy Netflix box-set Mindhunter.

Now he’s back with a new play. Mood Music, which is at the Old Vic until June 16, is set in the music business and sees a young female singer and an ageing ex-rockstar-turned-producer clash over a songwriting credit they both claim.

But is Penhall’s new play music to the critics’ ears? Is Michell’s production note-perfect? Does Mood Music play all the right chords?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Mood Music – Music to Their Ears

Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

With Blue/Orange, Penhall explored issues of psychology, sanity and race. With Sunny Afternoon, he penned a semi-biographical story of The Kinks’ early years. With Mood Music, he’s crafted something between the two, it seems.

“There’s music and there’s the music industry,” explains Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★). “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.”

“Penhall’s play essentially looks at the clash between creativity and commercialism, and how that can lead to horrendous abuse,” agrees Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “But it’s also wider, cleverer and subtler than that.”

“This is absolutely the play you’d expect to see from the author of Blue/Orange and Sunny Afternoon,” he continues. “One explored models of psychology, while the other staged the creative disagreement of the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies. And here’s the harmony of those two themes.”

“While the play makes the point that the music business treats women badly, it is infinitely more than a loaded conflict over intellectual property,” contends Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “As I see it, the music business is simply a metaphor: what Penhall is really writing about is the way art is often the product of damaged individuals who depend on a degree of collaboration.”

“Penhall dives deep into the complicated politics of power, sex, creativity, ownership, money and exploitation in the music industry,” writes Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★). “Let’s just say that it is certainly a play for our times.”

Mood Music is “perfectly of the moment, exploring how power and control work when it all goes wrong” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), “a lethally funny, memorably moving, elegantly threaded play” according to Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★) and “surely a candidate for the best play of the year” according to Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★★).

“Mood Music is electrifyingly smart,” says Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★★). “Specific yet universal, contemporary and multi-dimensional, an indictment of male abuse of women yet enticing to boys of all ages, by dint of being set in the world of pop music.”

Not everyone is as swept up by Mood Music, however. “The play’s reverberations die too fast,” reckons Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) thinks that “at its heart it needs more darkness and visceral conflict”.

“Mood Music largely stays at the same place and pitch throughout, and not a huge amount changes over its duration,” writes Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★). “It’s both concise and entertaining, but at the same time you could leave after half an hour and pretty much get it.”

“This is another in the catalogue of artists-behaving-badly series of plays about creative folk,” says Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★). “As such, it’s a bit circular and repetitive, endlessly circling around its subject to show variations of him preying and her being preyed upon.”

“But Penhall’s writing is so agile in its free-form structure – as it intercuts between past and present and parallel scenes as both of them interact with their respective psychotherapists and legal representatives – that it is also constantly gripping.”

Mood Music – On Song

Seana Kerslake in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Seana Kerslake in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Most critics sing Mood Music’s praises, then, but a handful of critics tune out instead. It’s a similar story with Roger Michell’s staging.

“All the various, sparely suggested locations – recording studio, consulting room, etc – are on stage at the same time, which the gives the play a marvellous fluidity and allows for an ironic counterpoint between these confabs,” explains Taylor. “Overhung by a forest of microphones, Roger Michell’s production has an incisive musical elegance.”

“The design also turns this colossal thrust stage (it’s bigger than the stalls) into a visualisation of the mind,” adds Bano. “It’s cluttered up front, decorated with instruments, microphones, chairs. Intermittently, auxiliary characters drift upstage into a blank area, as if they’re entering some sort of subconscious.”

For Billington, it’s a staging that’s got “beautiful fluidity that allows the arguments between the six characters to flow back and forth”, while for Lukowski it’s “taut” and “zingy”, and for Cavendish it’s “slick”, convincingly allowing Penhall’s play to be the “fugue for human voices” the author wanted it to be.

Most think Mood Music is as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears, then, but some don’t.

“The form has something of the testimonial about it, which allows Penhall to grapple with the issues, often deftly demonstrating the nuances of the situation,” writes Bowie-Sell. “But it is also quite distancing. The action plays out in a kind of oddly disconnected way, so that you never feel close to the characters. Perhaps that’s the intention – we’re hearing each side of the story – but it makes it harder to care.”

“Hildegard Bechtler’s set adds to that distancing,” chimes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★). “The giant thrust features carefully arranged instruments (sadly not played much) and chairs, with suspended mics above, and upstage a coolly lit box that offers album cover-esque tableaux.”

Mood Music – A Sublime Solo

Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Rhys Ifans – something of an Old Vic regular over the last few years – was slated to appear again at the venue in this show, but quit for family reasons, allowing Chaplin to step into his role as Bernard, the sneering, sardonic ex-rockstar producer. Chaplin is, for many, the best thing about this show.

“Bernard is a sneering, magnetic bully who insists that good songwriting demands detachment,” writes Hitchings. “Wickedly droll lines drip from his cruel mouth, and Chaplin savours his ruthless insouciance. In Roger Michell’s production he dominates a massive thrust stage that serves as an ominous image of his cocksure forcefulness.”

“With genuine rock-star charisma, an achingly affected loucheness and an ego the size of the Shard, he is an appalling prick but also completely magnetic in his extreme douchiness,” concurs Lukowski. “He’s almost problematically watchable: it is enormously fun to watch him childishly tear everything down around him.”

“His loose gestures and sneering delivery ooze confidence; he’s used to being the most looked-up-to person in the room,” adds Bano. “It’s impressive the way his body language suggests backstory.”

“Chaplin endows the character with a sadness that offsets his inbuilt arrogance,” notes Billington. “He may be a vampire, but when he expresses to his therapist incredulity that he could ever know his wife’s feelings, you feel that he is trapped inside his own chauvinism.”

Chaplin is “made for the part” according to Purves, “vividly charismatic” according to Swain, and “magnificently loathsome” according to Shuttleworth. It’s only Cavendish that’s not 100% convinced: “Chaplin’s demeanour doesn’t exactly (as Ifans’ does) yell mad, bad and dangerous to know,” he comments, “but he’s still superb at suggesting something of the night.”

Chaplin takes the lion’s share of the praise, but there’s still some to go around. Seana Kerslake’s performance as Cat, the singer, has “a wonderful openness” according to Taylor, is a “lovely, hugely complex turn” according to Bowie-Sell, and is “convincingly teenage, and even more convincingly troubled” according to Purves.

“It is, most of all, acted with spellbinding intensity,” concludes Shenton.

Mood Music – Is it any good?

Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Yep, it’s good. Some critics fall over themselves to praise Penhall’s play – Shuttleworth and Sierz in particular – and those who pick small holes in it simultaneously stress their admiration. Mood Music is a timely and savage bite at a misogynist music industry, and it’s received a compellingly fluid first production at the hands of Michell, a production that’s all the more impressive thanks to a sublime turn from Chaplin.

Mostly four-star ratings with a few threes and one five suggest a show that’s not a stratospheric smash, but is still a sure-fire success. Mood Music is a tune well worth hearing.

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