Propelled by the anxious collision of psychological expression and repression, Mood Music interrogates the boundaries of creative ownership and the extent to which we are emotionally invested in our artistic products. Written by Joe Penhall (Sunny Afternoon, Blue/Orange) and directed by Roger Michell, the piece chronicles the ego-clash of producer Bernard (Ben Chaplin) and wide-eyed vocalist and protégé, Cat (Seána Kerslake). After moving to London from her native Dublin, Cat is scouted by the esteemed producer who promises fanciful collaborations, avowing that he is “no stranger to excitement”. Dialogue splices between conversations with their respective doting psychotherapists (Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter) on a stage decked with a low ceiling of vintage microphones.
The relationship between the two soon turns sour. Cat becomes increasingly demystified by the façade of musical success and pines for a ‘purer’ method of musical expression to spiritually reconnect with her deceased father. Studio quarrels are spurned by Bernard’s self-assured musical machismo and confident misogyny. The trope is all too familiar and he is superbly repugnant. The declaration by Bernard’s Lawyer (Neil Stuke) that “It’s time to change the balance of power… within reason”, illustrates the extent to which misogyny is embedded in the operation of the music industry and manifests throughout the play’s legal struggles and the propagation of Bernard’s intuitive ‘genius’. “We’re essentially midwives, but the songs are our babies” he affirms. In this, and other references to songs as his “babies”, we see the heart of Bernard’s quest to erase female presence and stabilise his unstable identity. Chaplin’s performance garners audience chuckles, which I suppose is either rooted in his brashly exuding charm or their own reflective identification. I’m impressed, but as a young female creative, I’m far from amused.
Ultimately Cat descends into substance dependency in the midst of legal toils as she struggles to rationalise her trauma. There are moments when the language feels cheap, underscoring the soulless performativity of the industry as Bernard philosophises “Sometimes the dark heart of a song can never be known because frankly it’s too squalid”. For a play centred on the production and performance of music, there is surprisingly little actual music, albeit a sorrowful string-ensemble conducted by Cat which concludes the evening and injects a grain of optimism to the story of female creative and legal oppression. Whilst it might be a bitter pill to swallow, Mood Music is a timely rumination on the purpose of psychotherapy under capitalism and its use in fostering creative production and profit at the expense of those too weak to speak out.
Mood Music is playing at the Old Vic until 16 June
Photo: Tristram Kenton