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Preludes review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘hypnotic and dazzling’

Keith Ramsay and Georgia Louise in Preludes at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Scott Rylander
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Like the crash of chords that opens Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, this piece by Dave Malloy (of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 fame) is a crash of jarring eras and musical styles, of ideas, sounds and shapes.

Rachmaninov wrote the concerto after three years of block following the catastrophic critical reception of his first symphony. In that time he tried hypnotherapy and it’s those sessions, as well as the psychosis Rachmaninov experienced, that Malloy explores.

In Alex Sutton’s visually dazzling production, the composer has been bifurcated: Tom Noyes sits at a baby grand but barely speaks, while Keith Ramsay occupies the stage as the mind of Rachmaninov. Dressed like a goth in black boots and with kohl-lined eyes, he’s more convincing in his less mannered moments, when he moves beyond the exaggerations of someone acting madness.

Musically, Preludes is a mash-up of Rachmaninov’s own music and time period with Malloy’s. Two synths warp the clean sound of Noyes’ excellent piano playing into strange, scary textures and trance-inducing loops.

The cast of Preludes at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Scott Rylander

Designer Rebecca Brower has created a dreamscape – a strange recess of his fractured mind onstage. The shiny black parquet is broken up where the baby grand is, as if it’s crash-landed. It’s like a trendy piano bar, a psychiatrist’s office, a hallucination. Sinuous curves in the set clash with the thin sticks of neon that recede in angular arcs over the stage – Christopher Nairne’s hypnotic, paranoid lighting is particularly stunning.

Although still a show about a great man’s struggle to make great art, complete with trope of badly fleshed-out woman whose supportiveness is reaching its limits, the theme still proves fruitful.

A couple of false endings diminish the show’s potency, but otherwise the piece is a strange marvel. It’s less a musical and more a disruption – and thrillingly unlike anything else musical theatre has seen.

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Dave Malloy’s hypnotic piece set in the mind of Rachmaninov dazzlingly pushes the form of musical theatre