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A CurtainUp London Review
Mood Music

"The music industry isn't about healing heartbreak and vulnerability. It's about selling it." — Cat
Mood Music
Seana Kerslake as Cat and Ben Chaplin as Bernard (Photo: Manual Harlan)
Joe Penhall's last play was Sunny Afternoon, the history of the band "The Kinks". Maybe partly based on that experience, comes this latest play Mood Music set in the music industry.

Starring, in this play and I don't use the word lightly, is Ben Chaplin as Bernard, a music producer who is both charismatic and as hard as nails. Pitted against him is a woman, a young Irish girl Cat (Seana Kerslake) and the battle is about who owns the rights to the songs they have written together and she has sung.

The narrative is developed by six actors in three pairs. Cat is talking to Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave) explaining what has happened. We cannot be sure at this stage what Vanessa's profession is. Maybe she is a lawyer, maybe a therapist, but she is on a mission to understand Cat's side of things. Bernard is talking to Ramsay (Pip Carter) and here we are pretty sure that Ramsay IS a lawyer. The third couple are music company executive Seymour (Neil Stuke) and Miles (Kurt Egyiawan) who is definitely a lawyer.

This is essentially a wordy play but the writing and the direction and the performances give it an exciting dynamism that is enthralling because the conversations happen in parallel, and we cut in and out of the conversations between Bernard and Ramsay and Cat and Vanessa. Bernard tells Ramsay, "I wanted to use a female singer . . . . Girls are the new Boys." While we wince at the word "use" we laugh at the remark about "the new". Simultaneously Cat and Bernard say, "He is difficult to work with!" and, "She is difficult to work with!" as they put their case to their listener.

This first act is rich with plenty of witticisms. Someone asks, "Is song writing predicated on personal integrity?" I think it's Bernard. While Cat is apparently sincere and maybe a tad naïve, it is Ben Chaplin who steals the acting honours in this first act. He has a London drawl, an arrogant confidence and a conviction that he is right about everything, as well as an edgy attractiveness. You wouldn't want to be in argument with him. Seana Kerslake as Cat is in her first role in the West End and has a gauche idealism and conviction as to what is right. Mood Music is well cast and the performances are tip top.

The Second Act opens with Bernard and Cat jointly winning an Ivor Novello award. Bernard handles it with professional aplomb as he occupies the thank you speech space and cuts her opportunity in the limelight off. It is an excellent example of hardened experience winning over innocence as Cat is non plussed.

Music company executive producer Seymour is concerned about the legal implications of their earlier tour of America, where Cat, incapacitated by drink and maybe drugs but due to perform in a concert, travels across state lines. She is helped on her way by the company, aware she has a booking to fulfill. Miles points out that this is a federal offence.

The main dispute is about who had the ideas for the songwriting tunes and lyrics but of course it is hard to prove in an artistic collaboration, who came up with the idea first. I can't even be sure that Bernard's eloquent explanation of the emotional origin of a song is actually sincere. Instead the lawyers latch onto something they can make a case out of. "She was systematically exploited and abused," says Miles who is acting for her.

Hildegard Bechtler's set has a myriad collection of antique and modern microphones handing down from the ceiling in case we should forget which industry we are examining and in the week that Gibson guitars go under, at least one of the famous guitars is onstage. Bernard has a leather armchair to sprawl in and a mixing desk to work at.

Mood Music is really interesting to watch with the juxtaposition of the writing but I found the second half of this play disappointing after the great promise of the first. It seemed to me as if the playwright ran out of steam after such a brilliant start. Maybe that is the point? That these legal disputes do degenerate into contests where the result is lose: lose.

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Mood Music
Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by Roger Michell
Starring: Ben Chaplin, Seana Kerslake, Pip Carter, Kurt Egyiawan, Jemma Redgrave, Neil Stuke
Set Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Design: Dinah Collin
Composer and Music Supervisor: David Arnold
Sound Design: John Leonard
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Running time: Two hour 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 22nd May 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th May 2018 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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