Seána Kerslake (Kat) in Mood Music at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
In this current era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements comes a study of power in the music industry written by Joe Penhall and directed by Roger Mitchell. Even for a writer as experienced as Penhall this could prove a difficult task, especially with the female perspective in theatre being so underrepresented as tackled by Ella Hickson’s play The Writer at the Almeida. It's significant to also say how few women and men in the music industry have come forward, when the exploitation of the vulnerable talents for money is a known occurance in the business.
Penhall’s piece is an exceptionally well-constructed affair with three parallel conversations occurring between music mogul Bernard and his therapist, talented composer and singer Cat and her therapist, and their two lawyers. All of them attempting to unpick the precise nature of Cat’s and Bernard’s creative relationship and the disturbing events of the previous album tour. Where Penhall's script shines is in trying to depict the stressful and traumatising process for a victim to recount a problematic creative relationship.
Penhall’s piece is an exceptionally well-constructed affair
All conversations with Cat end up balancing the mismatched importance of his disempowering mentorship, her talent, whether a certain level of abuse is an acceptable trade for success and that no witnesses were worried for her. Meanwhile conversations with Bernard can take all these factors and spin them to seem benign. Leading the audience through this series of remembered events and a mutual love of music is a fascinating journey always infused with wry wit and laugh out loud moments. The acting is superb especially from the Seána Kerslake playing Cat. She proves to be the emotional centre of the play but also has to be the maelstrom of the damaged artist. You never lose track of the many facets of the tale and the play does lean towards a sense of the story being about Cat but it fundamentally is not. It is about Bernard being a stalwart apex predator.
Kurt Egyiawan (Miles) in Mood Music at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
So here is where the problems arise, in an attempt to show how a lone female voice cannot survive the misogyny, the legalese and the necessity to defend any mistakes on her part; the play actually succeeds in gagging its narrative. Cat is portrayed as young, green and battling her own demons before she even encounters Bernard but at the same time her self-appointed 'savior’ during the play is her male lawyer. Her one moment where the narrative gives her some agency, it manifests as a petulant act, which is a very natural response but following that moment she rejects other attempts at defeating Bernard. Ultimately, the music industry mill is always certain to prevail but by placing a modicum of narrative agency in her hands would have felt far more progressive as a contemporary play.
Penhall crafts an excellent creative crisis for two strong-willed musicians but for a modern piece, without delivering more female agency in some form, the axis on which the play spins feels retrograde.
Info: MOOD MUSIC is at The Old Vic until 16 June 2018 | book tickets