'The Ballad of Hattie and James' review – this empathetic drama explores love, loss and the power of music

Read our review of The Ballad of Hattie and James, starring Charles Edwards and Sophie Thompson, now in performances at the Kiln Theatre to 18 May.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Benjamin Britten is getting quite the theatrical workout these days. Fast on the heels of Ben and Imo and Turning the Screw, new plays that in both cases put the English composer centre stage, along comes Samuel Adamson’s The Ballad of Hattie and James.

Barely has this tricksy drama begun before we are thrown into preparations for a school presentation of the one-act Britten opera Noye’s Fludd. Says the precocious 16-year-old James of the score at hand: “It’s very complex.”

So, too, is Adamson’s play, which, like his 2019 entry at the same theatre, Wife, spans the decades to tell in this instance of the relationship over many years between the two music-minded chums of the title – which includes a reunion brought about by Hattie becoming a viral sensation after playing the piano in St Pancras station.

We also see them as teens in 1976 when James (Charles Edwards) is a stuttering, self-confident know-all, whilst Hattie (Sophie Thompson) is sweary and argumentative and knows her way around a Lydian B-flat. Both these adolescents will turn out to be gay as the play spirals forward and back, circling in on itself as it drops names ten to the dozen: Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister Fanny get a real workout.

I wish I could report much engagement with the pair’s lengthy commingling, which, in Richard Twyman’s co-production with English Touring Theatre in any case, needs to be taken more or less on faith.

Likewise, although Adamson’s play embraces Kate Bush and “Chopsticks”, amongst many others, he never fully connects music-making to the play’s emotional core. (One of two onstage pianists is present each performance to play Nicola T Chang and David Shrubsole’s original score.)

That it holds the interest is largely due to the ever-welcome presence of Edwards, back on a London stage for the first time since his Olivier-nominated turn as Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies. The actor is likeable and empathic throughout, whether recalling an Italian love affair contextualised, inevitably, by Death in Venice, or finding himself in old age confronted with the daughter, Frances, of his beloved Hattie – or, as he calls her, Hats.

Quite why the corduroy-wearing James’s devotion to Hattie remains as strong as it does isn’t immediately clear from the rabid, eager-to-a-fault Hattie presented by Thompson, who on this evidence seems fairly exhausting company. Never standing straight when she can stoop or even fall to the floor, she is emotionally febrile as she ricochets between partners.

A tireless Suzette Llewellyn takes on all the other roles, whether people from different phases of Hattie’s life or the instructor, Madame Schultz, who came upon Hattie and James as prodigious students, when they weren’t yet seven.

It’s great to have a play that keeps you spinning, in keeping with Jon Bausor’s turntable set, but any lasting resonance is provided by Edwards, who communicates what it means to have loved and lost – and, with regard to music, listened, as well.

The Ballad of Hattie and James is at the Kiln Theatre to 18 May. Book The Ballad of Hattie and James tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Ballad of Hattie and James (Photo by Mark Senior)

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