Review: Preludes, Southwark Playhouse

Preludes, a new musical with the book, music and lyrics all created by Dave Malloy, takes its audience on a journey through the life and creative traumas of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The show is sold as a look into Rachmaninoff’s life as recalled by him whilst undergoing hypnotherapy. In practice, however, the character of the therapist (who I don’t think even does any hypnotising until the second act) functions more simply as a device to enable flashback. The possibilities of hypnosis as a tool through which to realign the mind are really only explored towards the end, and feel like too little too late when they come. If nothing else, the narrative here in enthusiastically anachronistic. Our present, Rachmaninoff’s progressing present day timeline, various flashes of his past and a couple of much harder to chronologically place sequences leave the piece as a whole feeling unstable and unsettled, never finishing one thing fully before jumping on to another.

It’s an uncomfortable experience, but I spend a fair proportion of this show feeling, for the want of another way to put it, unsure of why they are doing what they are doing. This isn’t a reflection of the people on stage: the cast are undeniably talented, excelling particularly in their musicality. Perhaps I and my handful of flute grade certificates shouldn’t be the judge on this, but to me they are excellent. However, more often than not, they seem wrapped up in a structure that lacks an entirely coherent form. At first glance this isn’t necessarily obvious, as it’s paired with some very impressive lighting and staging work, created by Christopher Nairne and Rebecca Brower, particularly in Act 2.

Beyond this, sections of the stage time feel like they’re stretching something out of not much. Sometimes I feel that this is true of virtually all shows, but Preludes could definitely benefit from being perhaps 25 per cent shorter, simply in order to encourage it to say what it’s actually trying to say. I leave the theatre feeling genuinely unsure of what the desired response is. Perhaps sympathy? There are certainly times at which Rachmaninoff is presented as something akin to a victim of tragedy, but these are frequently just flashes in the pan.

In my mind, Preludes falls victim to trying to be all things to all people. It never seems to fully pick an angle, instead sidestepping from concept to concept, leaving them all feeling unsatisfying. The likelihood seems to be that it would be improved by just selecting one of its many ideas, and following it through all the way. So, while Preludes doesn’t really work for me at this time, I would be interested to see different iterations of the show in the future.

Preludes is playing Southwark Playhouse until 12 October. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.