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Review - Preludes at Southwark Playhouse

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Just as there are art-house films - which Wikipedia defines as serious, independent films, "aimed at a niche market rather than a mass-market audience" - there are also art-house musicals, which attract a different audience to Mamma Mia! or The Book of Mormon, but definitely have their place in the theatrical landscape. Dave Molloy's Preludes is a challenging, uncompromising example of one of these shows, and all credit to producer Danielle Tarento for giving London the opportunity to see this 2015 Off-Broadway musical, originally premiered in New York under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theatre in their experimental Claire Tow Theatre.

Even the billing warns you - or entices you, depending on your point of view - to expect something entirely different. It is subtitled "a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff" - and the result is alternately riveting and (intentionally) alienating.

It induces a kind of hypnosis itself, thanks in particular to the integrity and intensity of Keith Ramsay's stunning performance as the young, tortured version of Rachmaninoff - called Rach here - while recent Birmingham University music graduate Tom Noyes makes his impressive theatrical debut playing a more mature Rachmaninoff at the grand piano. Noyes is joined by two more electronic keyboards - Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant - to cover the rest of the wide-ranging musical duties.

The score, encompassing classical references from Bach and Beethoven to Rachmaninoff himself, provides a variously jarring and enticing wall of sound, delicately folded around Rach's hypnotherapy sessions with his therapist (a sternly serious Rebecca Caine, who also briefly reveals one of the most gorgeous singing voices on stage).  There's amazing support from the rest of a committed company that also features Georgia Louise as Rach's fiancé Natalya, Norton James as Rach's best friend and leading vocal exponent Chaliapin and Steven Serlin as the enigmatically-billed The Master.

Alex Sutton's production, with a set of receding lighted arches by Rebecca Brower and superb lighting and sound by Christopher Nairne and Andrew Johnson respectively, is both beautiful and brilliant. The show won't be to everyone's taste - but for those that tune into its eerie sense of wonder and the depressive impulses that create it, it's a true revelation. 

Preludes is at Southwark Playhouse until 12th October.

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