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Mood Music review at the Old Vic, London – ‘quietly gripping examination of creativity’

Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Seana Kerslake and Ben Chaplin in Mood Music at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Music is, perhaps, the most human thing there is and the music industry, possibly, the most inhuman. And it hasn’t had its own #TimesUp reckoning in the way film has. Joe Penhall’s play essentially looks at the clash between creativity and commercialism, and how that can lead to horrendous abuse. 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. 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: a creative disagreement between middle-aged record producer Bernard and young singer Cat, who have made an album together. After success comes the suing.
We see the slow unpeeling of their psychologies as they clash over the credit to a song, revealed through Cat and Bernard’s conversations with their therapists and lawyers, those conversations bleeding into one another. Sometimes the characters acknowledge the others on stage; mostly they don’t.
It’s a reminder that everything comes down to the minute interactions between people, in recording studios or wherever, and disagreement can split into two directions. It can become bitterly, traumatically personal while also being played out in front of a gossip-hungry public. 
Penhall focuses on the personal, with the public aspect always at arm’s length. Director Roger Michell reinforces that idea by having Cat and Bernard on stage all the time, the set unchanging, as if they’re in a locked room. The outside world never breaks in.


The design also turns this colossal thrust stage (it’s bigger than the stalls) into a visualisation of the mind. 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.
As a therapist, Jemma Redgrave captures a brick-wall blankness, poised and perfectly still as she delivers her lines and, more importantly, listens to Cat deliver hers.
Seana Kerslake, who plays Cat, shows the most range and offers carefully controlled glimpses of her trauma. She parries well with Ben Chaplin’s sociopathic Bernard. His loose gestures and sneering delivery ooze confidence; he’s used to being the most looked-up-to person in the room. It’s impressive the way his body language suggests backstory.
Penhall is a master of subtext. He draws out threads and leaves them hanging, asking the audience to tie them up. One conversation has Bernard teach Cat about the idea of musical suspension – a little drop of dissonance in a chord that creates tension and begs to be resolved. That’s either a metaphor for the play, or the play is a metaphor for that idea. Which way round is unclear. 
And although the play itself is surprisingly un-tense – civility boils over into shouting only very briefly – Penhall puts the musical idea of tension and resolution into his characters to create a fascinating, quietly gripping examination of creativity and everything that goes with it.

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Subtle and fascinating exploration of the clash between creativity and commercialism from Sunny Afternoon writer Joe Penhall