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The Pianist of Willesden Lane (St James theatre)

Mona Golabek's true family story of a wartime refugee makes its UK premiere at St James

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Kindertransport offered a glimmer of hope for desperate parents in the dark days following Kristallnacht in November 1938. This initiative funded the removal of almost 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi Europe to the safety of British foster homes.

Among them was a 15-year-old girl, Lisa Jura, a gifted pianist from Vienna who was sent away for her own safety with a loving exhortation from her mother to 'hold on to her music', so that she would always have her family in her heart. She arrived at Liverpool Street station and was lodged in Willesden Lane, and eventually became a concert pianist. Her daughter, Mona Golabek, here tells her mother's story, accompanied by a selection of some of the world's most famous music, playing live on stage herself on a Steinway grand piano.

Golabek plays Lisa, and her frank, heartfelt tale carries a huge emotional weight - she clearly feels a responsibility to pass on her family's history, and to demonstrate how music will always have the power to cross any number of barriers, whether geographical or emotional.

This is an extraordinary story on every level. Golabek is very engaging and her 90-minute non-stop narrative is a tour de force. She is a performer, perhaps, rather than an actor, but the sweetness, sincerity and utter commitment of her delivery carries us along with the teenager's story of how she ended up living in a London house of 17 refugee children, and managed to hold on to her music.

Director Hershey Felder adapted the book, The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen, to create this play, which has already been a success in the US.

Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal's projection design, and Ross Glane's video direction serves to flesh out the individual story with a visual reminder of the world-shattering events that led Lisa to London without her family.

The design is simple but Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay have created a set that echoes the elegance of Vienna in the 1930s, as well as a poignant series of huge picture frames that serve to show us family portraits as well as other key images and contemporary film footage.

And of course, there is the music. Mona Golabek is a gifted concert pianist herself, and brings a simply beautiful selection of music to illustrate each stage of her mother's journey, where her piano was her lifeline. The show culminates with her passionate debut at the Wigmore Hall, playing Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a fitting tribute to Golabek's own grandparents, and to the countless others who had the courage to save their children's lives, knowing their own were forfeit, by saying goodbye.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs at St James Theatre until 27 February.


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