Review: Preludes (Southwark Playhouse)

Dave Malloy’s show comes to the UK for the first time

Rebecca Caine and Keith Ramsay in Preludes
Rebecca Caine and Keith Ramsay in Preludes
© Scott Rylander

Musicals about tormented artists aren't exactly rare – one only need look at Sunday in the Park with George or LoveMusik to know that there's a lot to be said about the lives of famous creatives facing personal crises.

But Dave Malloy's Preludes, which has its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is an enigmatic addition to the collection. Not merely a straight-laced biographical show, Malloy's two-act piece is significantly more abstract – an experimental, formally elusive trance-like experience that doesn't just defy categorisation but questions what it means to be categorised. All convention is eschewed – the first act doesn't end with some big show-stopper, characters aren't who they say they are, and time periods collide and contradict with one another.

Malloy's show, in essence, is about the three-year creative block of Sergei Rachmaninoff after the catastrophic premiere of his first symphony. Desperate for release, Rachmaninoff turned to the up-and-coming idea of hypnotherapy to solve his woes, with the sessions taking him back and forward through his life.

The hypnotherapy doesn't really take up that much of the show's runtime, which mostly flits between different parts of the Russian composer's life – the creation of his famous Prelude, his interactions with the artistic elite in Moscow, or his turbulent romance with cousin-turned-fiancé Natalya (the pair had to receive verbal permission from the Tsar to be married).

It is Keith Ramsay, wide-eyed, sweaty, dressed to look like a character from a My Chemical Romance music video, who takes on most of the heavy lifting. Ramsay doesn't really play the iconic composer but instead plays an aspect of the composer's personality, a skittish, jumpy figure that wears torment like a favourite jumper. He shares the role with the brilliant Tom Noyes as "Rachmaninoff", stationed at a piano and playing near constantly throughout the show – brilliantly accomplished performances of Beethoven and more rippling through Southwark Playhouse. Solid supporting performances come from Rebecca Caine, thanklessly asking question after question with clinical steel, while Georgia Louise is brilliant though sadly given much too little to do as Natalya.

There is some bombastic, trippy stuff going on – lighting designer Christopher Nairne throws almost every single wash, gel and flash at the wall in what is a kaleidoscopic start to the second act. But it's in the subtler touches of Alex Sutton's production where the magic lies – the way a throbbing heartbeat is made to sound like the rise and fall of a sustain pedal, or the way Ramsay's fingers hover over piano keys, the angsty man afraid to touch the ivory as if it were red hot.

It's an odd piece – almost like if Trent Reznor had turned his hand to musical theatre – and the second act drags more than it should. But this is an assured UK premiere that lands with an ethereal grace – few musicals achieve something as distinct.