Mood Music at the Old Vic review: A wild ride through the dark side of the music business

 
Steve Dinneen
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Mood Music at the Old Vic
4.0

Hunter S Thompson famously said: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” It’s evil and that’s why we love it – we get to watch the vainglorious achievements, and shed a tear at the dramatic downfalls.

Mood Music is interested in the people – specifically women – who get chewed up and spat out in the process. It’s about the dynamics of powerful older men working with, and taking advantage of, young women. While its subject matter is music – and its comment on the destructive aspects of the creative process shows a high degree musical literacy – there are also overtones of the #metoo movement, which cast a shadow over this very theatre under the tenure of Kevin Spacey.

The play follows Cat, a bright young singer-songwriter who’s flattered when her idol, the successful music producer-cum-multi-instrumentalist Bernard, says he simply must work with her (“girls are the new boys” he muses). They start to record, him “tweaking” her songs, crafting her raw ideas into potential hits. Only he’s not so interested in sharing the writing credits, nor the royalties, nor the plaudits.

The story is told through a series of over-lapping conversations: between the artists and their respective psychiatrists; between the artists and their respective lawyers, between the lawyers themselves; and in flashbacks between Cat and Bernard. They’re all on stage all the time, seeing through one another, like a Venn diagram with the musicians at the white-hot centre.

The confidential tone of the therapy sessions gives you a direct line into their psyche, their guards lowered, their public masks slipping. Seana Kerslake does an incredible job of transforming Cat from a sassy, eager talent into an angry, confused wreck, her father-issues further muddying her already toxic relationship with the producer.

Bernard, for his part, is more straight-forward: he’s a dick. But he’s the kind of dick we’ve been conditioned to tolerate, an anti-hero, a perpetual child, a lovable rogue. He’s damaged, but that damage explodes outwards like a grenade, unlike Cat’s, which tunnels inside like a cancer. Ben Chaplin plays the part brilliantly, channeling the same loathsome charm and coiled venom that made his performance in TV drama Apple Tree Yard so powerful (Rhys Ifans was lined up to play the part but dropped out, which is no great tragedy).

It’s not all pain and suffering; writer Joe Penhall (Enduring Love, The Road, Mindhunter) drops some killer one liners – “bass players aren’t musical”, "drummers can't feel pain" – and he just about gets away with a final beat that errs dangerously close to wish-fulfilment.

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