Reviewer's Rating

Anoushka Lucas is a highly talented composer and performer in different genres. Fresh from her success as Laurie in the radically updated recent version of ‘Oklahoma’ she has immediately reprised at the Bush a one-woman show originally delivered there last year in a briefer version. It is ‘tour de force’ of delivery – just Lucas, an upright piano, a few rugs and a bookcase, all positioned in a sunken revolve of a set. Dates and titles are projected onto the edge of the set (not visible to all seats in the theatre, though) which give a sense of the intercut scenes that weave together three separate narratives which collectively comprise the leading themes of her life. Songs and piano numbers are also interspersed throughout.

Gradually we accumulate a sense of her character’s experiences growing up in a mixed-race working-class household. Thanks to a scholarship and the aspirational endeavours of her family she is encouraged to pursue a high-quality education where music plays a key part, not least thanks to the arrival of a piano in her home from an early age. Much of the best writing in the show revolves around her relationship with the piano as a source of liberation as a composer and also as a continuing object of mystery. Gradually another strand of the story comes to dominate as her personal connection to a fellow musician leads to a complex set of reflections on how her education has shaped her as middle class while her racial identity has denied her access to full acceptance. Ironically, her music is then judged inadequate by others – here represented by a series of voiceovers from crass industry professionals – for not being sufficiently racially self-conscious. She observes a series of connections here to the sufferings of elephants, hunted down for ivory which is then turned into piano keys.

Lucas has appreciated that this is a demanding text intellectually and emotionally. She ensures that there is a lot of dynamic movement and humour so that the tone avoids didacticism. She voices the other characters convincingly and shows fine technical skill in pacing the longer scenes, especially the climactic ‘After Dinner.’ The musical interludes have plenty of soul and charm, and the songs work to underscore a mood and to divert. There is a sophisticated lighting design from Laura Howard which varies the tonal palette and Georgia Wilmot’s set ensures everyone gets a sight of the keyboard while not spinning too often in way sometimes happens at the Olivier Theatre.

I have two reservations about this show. While I did not see the original and shorter version my sense is that a running time of about an hour would suit the format better than seventy five minutes: in the present form some of the themes come round several times in a way that is not required to get the essential points across. Furthermore, the presentation of the patronising and dismissive attitudes of the record company executives seems to be something of a missed opportunity. Lucas’ reactions to these put-downs are expressed in the contortions of her body on and around the piano rather than in verbal jousting and defiance. Given the eloquence of the character she portrays, you have to wonder whether the extraordinary denunciations she offers of middle-class assumptions at the climax of the play might be better directed at the demeaning treatment her professional work has received within the industry (assuming that the character is largely autobiographical of course). This would be a fresh and intriguing perspective on racist pigeon-holing, whereas the critique of older colonialist assumptions is one that many have undertaken before, albeit without laying bare the connections between empire and piano ivory in this particular way.