Mood Music, The Old Vic (Streamed Broadcast) – Review

In Greek mythology, the Muses were the goddesses who provided ‘divine inspiration’ for those working in the sciences and the arts. In modern times (and especially in conversations on Twitter) ‘Muses’ have a more prevalent secondary meaning – women who are the real source for the creative input in projects, but not given the recognition by the men who’ve stolen their ideas. And nowhere is this more true than in the music business…

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‘Mentor and protégé’: Ben Chaplin as Bernard and Seána Kerslake as ‘Cat’

Written by Joe Penhall and directed by Roger Michell, Mood Music throws a spotlight on an ingénue musician and a record producer in the last days of their professional relationship. In many ways it’s the end of a creative marriage and as they ‘lick their wounds’, both parties take counsel from their respective psychotherapists and lawyers.

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In the case of Caitlin/“Cat” (Seána Kerslake), music is of great personal importance to her – an accessible link to her deceased father who had his own dreams of making it into the music business. For Bernard (Ben Chaplin) – a seasoned record producer with a Phil Spector/Svengali-complex – music is an arena where he’s given carte blanche to exert control over others.

Cat’s psychotherapist, Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave) is initially ‘neutral’ when first listening to her tale of woe. But as Cat becomes more candid about her past and emotions, and remembers (in an almost off-hand manner) all the events that transpired in the recording studio and US tour, Vanessa realises the depth of psychological duress that Cat’s endured. Similarly, Miles (Kurt Egyiawan) – Cat’s lawyer – is aghast at the way she’s been treated, realising that Bernard and the record company are potentially liable to criminal prosecution.

Left: Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave) / Right: Miles (Kurt Egyiawan) 

As for Bernard’s psychologist, Ramsay (Pip Carter), he is also a dispassionate observer initially. But over time it becomes increasingly evident that what Ramsay’s dealing with is an individual devoid of empathy – unable (or unwilling) to see put others’ feelings or needs before his own. Bernard’s lawyer, Seymore (Neil Stuke) is a very different breed from Miles, in that not only is he aware of his client’s ‘difficult behaviour’, he deliberately tries to obfuscate the lines of enquiry. However, certain admissions from Bernard make it impossible for Seymore to ignore or justify, even if he has done well financially by defending Bernard in the past…

Left: Ramsay (Pip Carter) / Right: Seymore (Neil Stuke) 

With a lesser actor, Bernard would be without wit or charm. However, Chaplin accomplishes the near-impossible task of making his character’s narcissism interesting to watch and amusing, even when we know how his behaviour has affected others. Certainly his traits can be readily recognised in public figures today – less of a caricature, more of a mirror to politicians!

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As for Kerslake, she brings the right balance of ‘experience’ (of the hardships of life) to Cat, a character who is talented yet unable to see with clarity the gaslighting practices in the music industry. Certainly by the end of the play, Kerslake convinces the audience of Cat’s own assimilation of the ‘music business mindset’, her once-evident innocence all but gone.

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On a technical level, the musicianship of Kerslake and Chaplin lends the show a credibility regarding the subject matter – not as a ‘play with music’, but demonstrating through nuanced notes how ‘ownership’ of riffs, chords and melodies can be disputed.

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Ironically, it is Cat’s lack of familarity with ‘precise’ musical terminology that is used against her as a ‘commodity’. ‘Ownership’ of the musical ‘vocabulary’ guarantees the power stays within the ‘priesthood’ of music executives, rather than the new talent trying to break into the industry…

© Michael Davis 2020

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Mood Music is available to watch on YouTube until 7pm on Tuesday 14th July:

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