Mood Music (Online Review)
The Old Vic
Writer: Joe Penhall
Director: Roger Michell
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Composer: David Arnold
Starring: Ben Chaplin and Seána Kerslake
It is not often that we see the messy workings of entertainment law and intellectual property that lurk behind the glossy exterior of the music industry. Joe Penhall’s play takes us past the stage and with real purpose into studios, lawyers' offices and therapy rooms. We get a glimpse of the darker side of creative genius and what it means to be intellectually exploited.
We get a glimpse of the darker side of creative genius and what it means to be intellectually exploited.
We follow an up and coming singer songwriter, Cat (a brilliant Seána Kerslake), and music producer (Ben Chaplin) while, instead of reaping the rewards of having a hit, they battle over who claims credit for the song. Mood Music is one long scene of battling lawyers, desperate therapists and clashing personalities.
One of the first lines is: “All human interactions are monetised”. My initial reaction was one of denial and disgust, but as the play developed and as the creative beauty of music distorts into legal technicalities, I was less confident.
Cat is overwhelmed by her power, her talent and her ability to make it in the industry. She has given a part of herself to the songs she wrote on her bedroom floor and so, when she feels exploited and plagiarised, it is not simply her songs on the line, but herself. She is stripped of her spirit and it is crushing to witness.
Cat is stripped of her spirit and it is crushing to witness.
Bernard is the human form of blunt arrogance, expertly played by Ben Chaplin. His very presence makes everyone boil with anger; his tone, his attitude, even his seating positions are infuriating. Penhall manages to convey Bernard’s blind ignorance of his own appalling disregard for others, exposing the elitism and sexism rife and embedded in the music industry. At one point Cat says: “I literally don’t exist”, and no one can argue with her.
The strongest parts of the production are when the entire cast are on stage pacing, overlapping and stressing; laudable direction from Roger Michell. Where the pace starts to feel slack is when we are left alone with Cat and Bernard in a memory of when they were writing songs or on tour in America. The chemistry between the two, stripped of the ensemble, is missing something. They were alone yet everyone was watching; audience, lawyers and therapists ready to examine, legally and psychologically, every movement, exhalation and tone.
The splitting of conversations between Bernard and therapist, Bernard and Cat, Cat and therapist, therapist and lawyer, lawyer and lawyer is exhausting but intelligent. It gives the audience an idea of how impossible it must be to untangle the complexities of memories, ideas and creative expression. It is confusing yet maintains consistency.
“Stealing an idea is an incredibly intimate form of betrayal.”
“Stealing an idea is an incredibly intimate form of betrayal.” It is never established who is in the right, but Penhall’s writing and character development carries the story through right until the inconclusive ending. There will never be a truly clear-cut finish to legal battles over riffs and melodies. The process engulfs a part of each person involved, musicians and professional advisers alike are worse off for their part in the proceedings. There is no winner, in spite of the money, the credit and the awards.
For a play - a really good one - about music, there could have been more music to break up the endless, often breathless dialogue. However, this is an area of the arts we should all be more aware of. Mood Music does a brilliant job of putting it in the spotlight.
Photo: London Theatre Bookings