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Mood Music Review:
Recently opened at The Old Vic, Mood Music is a powerful analysis of the gender and power relations in the music industry. Written by Joe Penhall, it charts the emotional and legal wranglings between a young, female musician and an older, male music producer. Cat (Seána Kerslake) is an aspiring singer-songwriter who is incredulous about the opportunity of working with longtime music idol, Bernard (Ben Chaplin). What starts off as a promisingly creative collaboration soon unravels into a legal battle over Intellectual Property. Each has a lawyer and an assigned therapist through whom they argue with one another. While the play was written before the #MeToo movement, it presciently touches on many of the debates about the power that wealthy men running creative industries have over less empowered, younger women. It could not be more topical and is a strong indictment of the abuse of power that continues to be revealed daily in the press.
Yet, the play is also emotionally nuanced. Giving each protagonist a therapist enables the play to explore the unconscious layers of meaning behind each character’s behaviour and choices. Why has Ben developed into such a narcissistic bully? Why does Cat – a strong and creative young woman – allow herself to be manipulated and used by Ben?
The exploration of the inner lives of the characters through the medium of psychotherapy was, for me, the most satisfying aspect of the play. It provided an excellent psychological depiction of a wounded man made powerful through success and money making and evolving into someone utterly devoid of humanity. ‘What’s that mean?’ he asks his therapist, Ramsay (Pip Carter) when he suggests that Ben may try to show Cat some humanity. Ben is an overgrown adolescent perpetually obsessed with himself, his narcissistic wounding inflicted by his drunk, self-obsessed and destructive parents. He muses about his invisibility to them and asks, in a rare show of vulnerability, ‘why did they bother to have me?’ He anxiously bites his fingernails but his pain is all projected out, while his rage is easily triggered when he is criticised or fears abandonment.
Cat is nursing her own wounds. She lost her father at the tender age of 13 – a man she admired and idolised. She is desperate to make proud him of her achievements even though he has died years before. He lives on vividly in her mind and Ben provides a substitute as an older man who professes to protect her but ends up abusing her. Cat’s therapist, Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave), doggedly works towards helping Cat to uncover her own wounds and assume responsibility for her part in her complex relationship with Ben.
Cat and Ben develop a co-dependency. As Ben remarks, ‘I’ve never exploited anyone who didn’t want to be exploited.’ Both are grieving loss but Cat has more capacity for growth – symbolically as a young person with her life ahead of her but also psychologically. She is helped to empowerment not through lawyers, but with the healing power of psychotherapy. Ben lacks this capacity for growth. He is older, less emotionally flexible, enraged by Cat’s accusation that he produces ‘corny, Dad Rock’. His creativity in on the wane and relies on the blood and life force of young, talented women. As his therapist peels away his defences we see that Ben is threatened by women whom he simultaneously needs to sustain him while he destroys and discards them. Cat accurately describes him as ‘a vampire.’
The lawyers, Miles (Kurt Egyiawan) and Seymour (Neil Stuke) depict some of the moral dilemmas of representing their clients and are almost like the good cop/bad cop of the play. The central role of lawyers in promoting male dominance in the industry is neatly summed up by the response to the question: why do men always get the best deals? ‘Because they get the best lawyers.’ While the lawyers’ arguments and counter-attacks enabled the legal complexities of the music industry to be revealed, it felt a bit didactic at times as did some of the psychological explanations about neural pathways and trauma.
All six actors put in very strong performances. Ben Chapman was so creepy and convincing in his role that I positively loathed him. Seána Kerslake alternated vulnerability with outrage and a growing sense of self-awareness which felt genuine. Both Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter captured the therapist speak and modulated voices that indicate therapeutic concern, their attempts at a non-judgemental attitude giving way under duress to explicit indignation. Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke portrayed different character types in the legal profession with Stuke putting in an entertaining performance as an older, cynical entertainment lawyer with few scruples who ultimately has to decide between his morality and his bank balance. Egyiawan plays the foil, the ingénue with a conscience who tried to get the best deal in a bad situation for his client and eventually feels he has failed her.
While the content of the play is serious, the script is also very funny. Penhall peppers the play with insider jokes. The couple seated alongside me, who are in the music industry, roared with laughter at certain lines relating to the machinations of music producers and record labels, whereas I, with an interest in psychotherapy, enjoyed the accurate depiction of therapy-speak and a few references to the tensions within the profession, such as when Ben’s therapist, on being referred to as a psychotherapist, points out that in fact, he is a Clinical Psychologist.
The staging is simple but effective with a battered leather armchair, a few office chairs, a mixing desk and a drum kit with a couple of guitars. Seeing this musical setup had me hoping to hear more music than the few teasing chords and vocals which hinted at musicality unexplored.
Mood Music is poignant, engaging and very entertaining. It tackles head on the psychological cost of creativity and the music industry in particular, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Whether the power differential and abuse and misuse of creative talent will ever be effectively addressed in the industry is beyond the remit of the play. This remains to be enacted out in the real world outside the walls of the theatre.
Theatregoers are in for a further treat in the form of a pre or post theatre dinner at The Delaunay in Covent Garden. A two-course dinner is on offer along with a ticket to Mood Music for £70. The Delaunay is renowned for its ambience, service and high-quality food. The pre-theatre menu offers a choice of three starters and mains. Diners can choose between avocado, rocket and quinoa salad or eggs benedict or citrus marinated salmon tartare to start. Main courses are fish goujons with tartare sauce and chips, vegetable stroganoff with spätzle or grilled, spatchcocked chicken with a side salad
For more about Mood Music, which runs till 16th June check the Old Vic Website
For the special offer at the Delaunay, click here to go to the Restaurant website