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‘Penhall beautifully & subtly unravels the increasing bullying behaviour’: MOOD MUSIC – Old Vic (Online review)

Covering a diverse range of issues such as passion, creativity, power and control, Mood Music has many great elements – but can feel repetitive.

Joe Penhall’s Mood Music delves into the music industry to explore many dark themes including exploitation, power and control as seen through the eyes of singer Cat (Seána Kerslake) and music producer Bernard (Ben Chaplin).

Songwriter and singer Cat has written a song, but instead of feeling elated she is caught up in a fierce battle with her music producer Bernard who is trying to claim credit for the song. While their lawyers battle it out on the legal technicalities, the singer and music producer air their frustrations at their therapists.

Structurally, this play takes a little getting used to as characters argue over on top of each other in apparently different settings that can make it difficult to get a strong understanding of the characters. It tends to jump around a lot – particularly in the way in which the therapists intercede with different observations.

However, this being said it does offer a fascinating insight into the way power, bullying and exploitation comes into creative industries – yes it focuses on the music industry in particular, yet the circumstances of this play can be applied to many other industries. Penhall beautifully and subtly unravels the increasing bullying behaviour of Bernard to attempt to get ownership of the song – highlighted strikingly in the moment in which the pair get an award for the song – but Bernard takes the spotlight away from Cat.

While lawyers and psychiatrists form the other characters around them, it is Bernard and Cat whose stories effectively evolve as themes of grief, pain and loss are explored in their own backstories. The way in which this is presented captures their differences in handling situations but also the similarities to some extent of the way they defend themselves emotionally. When Cat is talking about her father’s death or Bernard is discussing reluctantly his divorce – it adds an additional rawness to the play.

Directed by Roger Michell, the story effectively is brimming with tension throughout. It is a fluid and precise production but also shows how the play at times feels as though it is going round in circles as a number of different arguments play out, proving to be disorientating in places – seen most of all in the second act. This being said, Hildegard Bechtler’s adaptable set design effectively sweeps the audience from the studio to the psychiatrist’s office with great style and having the cast playing instruments and singing makes it feel more authentic.

Ben Chaplin as Bernard is suitably filled with swagger and arrogance, yet there is an underlying sadness to his character that adds extra depth. It is a performance that subtly and effectively changes to a more aggressive style that is compelling as it is chilling to watch. He is well matched by Seána Kerslake as the feisty but increasingly vulnerable Cat, who is looking to still make her father proud. She offers a detailed and insightful performance that shows the frustration of being manipulated and torn apart by trying to make her own mark in the music industry. There is also solid support from Kurt Egyiawan as the calm and reassuring Miles and Jemma Redgrave as Vanessa who tries to help Cat through her pain and anger.

Overall, it is a great idea for a play – but the arguments feel as though they become increasingly repetitive that makes it difficult to see what it wants to achieve. It is still worth a watch for the performances and the way in which it has been presented.

by Emma Clarendon

Mood Music is available to watch through the Old Vic’s Youtube channel until the 14th July.


from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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