Author and director Terry Johnson’s Piano/Forte, which he penned specially for actresses Kelly Reilly and Hollywood’s Alicia Witt See News, 31 Jul 2006), received its world premiere at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs last week (Wednesday 20 September 2006, previews from 14 September). The new play, about an errant Tory MP, his new glamour-model fiancée and his alarmingly difficult offspring – volatile Louise (Reilly) and subdued Abigail (Witt) - runs until 14 October 2006.

First night critics were hugely impressed with the strong performances of the leads – particularly that of Reilly as the highly-strung, louder sister. However, some were not convinced by Johnson’s “contrived” off-the-wall drama.

  • Michael Coveney on – “Johnson has always been a marvellous one-off, but he is a considerable craftsman, too, and this new dramatic fandango is as strange and compelling as anything he has written to date. It is also highly entertaining….. Just as David Hare wrote the misleadingly titled Breath of Life (the one quality that play lacked) for Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, so Johnson, far more successfully, has tailored a stage suit for the talented, red-headed and convincingly sororal duet of Alicia Witt (a superb pianist) and Kelly Reilly, the one placid and deeply troubled inside (piano), the other demonstrative, neurotically brutal and emotionally florid (forte). Reilly’s Louise – a stunning, award-winning performance if ever I saw one - totes a gun, topless, mocking the new fiancee’s profession in an aggressive display of the most beautiful breasts seen on the Court’s stage since Harriet Walter’s in a Timberlake Wertenbaker play many years ago.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Although it is undeniably overheated, I infinitely prefer Johnson's wild excess to other dramatists' buttoned-up restraint…. So what is Johnson up to? At first, I thought his play was an attack on a culture in which political disgrace is turned into personal aggrandisement. But eventually, like David Hare's The Secret Rapture, it becomes a study of the clamorous demands of the disordered…. In the end, Johnson throws almost too much into the pot: good and evil, sanity and madness, the opportunism of a celebrity culture. But his production is rich in theatrical invention, including the eruption of a pair of anarchic Spanish acrobats, and beautifully played. Kelly Reilly is stunning as Louise…. Alicia Witt is equally impressive as Abigail…. It may be a play full of cinematic echoes, but in its fascination with sex and death it is pure Terry Johnson.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “Decidedly, Johnson’s new play isn’t his funniest, despite a first-act denouement in which Louise brings some Spanish acrobats to the wedding feast, watches them swoop half-naked from the flies to shove a custard pie into Dawn’s face and perform mid-air obscenities…. But even when we’re asked to laugh — and laugh we do — we’re always aware that we’re watching a pretty dark sort of revenge comedy…. Most of the interest and all the tension comes from one character only. What will Reilly’s ultra-vindictive Louise perpetrate next?... There’s an awful fascination in watching malign energy at work, especially when it comes in as gleefully volatile and entertainingly mercurial a shape as Reilly’s Louise, but a small voice at the back of my head wonders if it’s enough to sustain an evening. There’s more mischief here than there is depth.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - Running counter to his colleagues, de Jongh was thoroughly unimpressed with Piano/Forte, asserting he would cross London to avoid it. He did, however, praise the performances of the leading ladies. “Terry Johnson is a playwright of remarkable imagination and theatrical flair, thematic daring and comic invention. Last night, however, this memorable author of two key Royal Court dramas… severely damaged his reputation. There are not that many plays I would cross London to avoid. Johnson's Piano/Forte, an ill-mixed combination of farcical black comedy and psychodrama about the two disturbed, twenty-something daughters of a Conservative MP, is one of them…. Like a dramatist bingeing on breakdown, Johnson goes for laughable excess in creating his two anti-heroines. Alicia Witt's beautifully doleful medicated Abigail, variously burdened by a stammer, agoraphobia, panic attacks, a Hitchcockian fear of birds and a passion for her uncle (Danny Webb) opens the door to her manic sister, Louise (Kelly Reilly). You understand her hesitation. Louise turns out to be unduly unhinged…. The charismatic Reilly does a terrific line in volatility…. She deftly fulfils melodramatic and farcical functions in turn, or even at the same time, when Johnson's contrived and implausible plotting dictates.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell