Mental health. That’s the central theme of Dave Malloy’s purposefully anachronistic look at the period of celebrated Russian composer Rachmaninoff’s life following negative criticism to his first symphony.
Immediate, powerful and highly relatable for anyone that has questioned their own abilities.
Rachmaninoff had found fame with Prelude in C-sharp minor, composed when he was just 19, but a poor debut performance of his Symphony No 1 received vicious reviews – probably because the under rehearsed conductor Alexander Glazunov was drunk. This dragged Rachmaninoff into a three-year spiral of depression during which he wrote almost nothing until his cousin (and fiancée) Natalya encouraged him to visit a hypnotherapist. This is where Malloy picks up the story. Theoretically, one would assume that Preludes is set around the turn of the 20th century. Well, it is, and it isn’t. We are in Rachmaninoff’s head – a no-man’s land. A place outside of time. An ethereal dream-like world created out of the past and the present, and the future and all the times in-between.
Malloy splits our protagonist into two characters. Rachmaninoff (Tom Noyes) sits almost completely wordless at the piano while Rach (Keith Ramsay) plays the composer's psyche counselled by Dahl (Rebecca Caine). Natalya (Georgia Louise) and best friend opera singer Feodor Chaliapin (Norton James) try to keep Rach grounded while Steven Serlin plays a multitude of roles from Tchaikovsky to Chekhov that highlight key moments in his journey.
The show begins on Rach’s first visit to his therapist trying to find out “what happened three years ago?” Rach can barely talk at first until he tumbles into the opening number that meticulously describes the hollow hours of his daily routine. It’s a musical mash up of classical and contemporary over a pulsing heartbeat that gives the first indication that this is not your mother’s musical. Indeed Malloy assembles a veritable hoard of musical styles that shouldn’t work but just do. The closing song of Act I, Natalya, seamlessly combines a relentless melodic refrain with the hauntingly romantic Piano Concerto No 2 and followed at the start of Act II with an electro-synth number that wouldn’t be out of place in hard rock band Lordi’s playlist – costume included.
You’ll have gathered by now that Preludes isn’t a dry recital. It’s immediate, powerful and highly relatable for anyone that has questioned their own abilities. It recounts the pre-history of Rachmaninoff’s three-year depression to eventually answer Dahl’s question. What happened three years ago? “I failed” Rach says so gut-wrenchingly simply. It’s an astonishingly powerful moment.
Rebecca Brower’s set and Christopher Nairne’s lighting emphasis the conflict in Rach’s mind. A grand piano sits on a smashed parquet floor framed by a series of LED-lit angular surrounds that recede upstage creating an Escher-style 3D effect that makes you feel like you’re falling into this dream. Alex Sutton’s direction never loses your focus, playing with the light and shade of Malloy’s piece like a master puppeteer. But it’s the star-making performance of Keith Ramsay that truly astounded me. Ramsay’s emotion is raw and visceral and at turns delicately tender with an authentic nervous chuckle. It’s a cliché I know, but I literally couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
Ramsey’s triumph doesn’t distract from powerhouse performances elsewhere on stage. This is Tom Noyes’ professional debut and has to be one of the most accomplished I have seen. As well as being a truly outstanding musician he is also able to be incredibly in-the-moment and act alongside a very experienced cast in those rare and beautiful moments where he is noticed by the other performers. The wondrous Rebecca Caine was more than capable of keeping up with Ramsay’s wild state. As the ever-calming guide through the production her observations and questions always shining a torch through the mist, to help Rach recover his mind and creative passion.
Preludes may share some DNA with Stephen Sondheim’s discordant Sunday In The Park With George, but Preludes brings us something completely new and I can honestly say it’s the best thing I’ve seen this year and seriously doubt I’ll see anything better before the year is out.