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Mood Music, Old Vic, London — electrifyingly smart

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Mood Music, Old Vic, London — electrifyingly smart

Theatre

Mood Music, Old Vic, London — electrifyingly smart

Joe Penhall’s play investigates power and paradoxes in the pop music industry

Seána Kerslake in 'Mood Music' © Manuel Harlan

Joe Penhall is always an intelligent playwright, and sometimes the acuity itself is thrilling. Mood Music is electrifyingly smart: specific yet universal, contemporary and multi-dimensional, an indictment of male abuse of women yet enticing to boys of all ages, by dint of being set in the world of pop music.

Penhall and director Roger Michell throw us in at the deep end: a middle-aged man and a young woman are circulating around the thrust stage (bare save for a few instruments and electrics), engaging in rapidly intercut snippets of discussion with their respective interlocutors. After a few minutes it clarifies: Cat is a talented musician, paired by her record company with experienced hitmaker Bernard. He has over-reached his role as producer, reworking her songs, taking formal joint credit that becomes de facto sole credit, because he’s him: famous, arrogant and male. Each is explaining their situation to their own psychotherapist; after a while their respective lawyers enter, to deal with Cat’s claim for the songwriting credits which are her due.

The immediate crux, then, is what intellectual property law calls “moral rights”: the right to be identified as author of a work. Even though the word “moral” isn’t uttered until 10 minutes before the end, we are excruciatingly aware of such a dimension. Yet it is one of several. As in his breakthrough play Blue/Orange, Penhall uses the process of psychological examination to uncover more general issues. We see not just individual background factors but the paradoxes of the music industry trading emotional honesty and connection as mass-produced goods and, above all, its indulgence of abuses of power. Bernard’s combination of entitlement and insecurity is toxic and ends up polluting Cat, but at its heart is the sexual stereotyping that pervades music more than many other areas: the assumption that she creates the feelings, but he fashions the work.

Ben Chaplin is magnificently loathsome as Bernard, Seána Kerslake naturally sympathetic as Cat, Pip Carter and Jemma Redgrave immensely patient as their respective shrinks, Kurt Egyiawan and (especially, deliciously) Neil Stuke off at an angle as their lawyers. The music (as they argue over how hackneyed a suspended ninth sounds in a piano chord) is by James Bond soundtrack maven David Arnold. The programme thanks Gibson Guitars, the legendary company which has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection . . . how’s that for a topical motif of the unyielding nature of the biz? Comprehensively excellent.

★★★★★

To June 16, oldvictheatre.com

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