Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2001

All is darkness, smoke and mechanical throbbing. Amidst, a barely discernible human shape, and a tired, resigned voice which begins to tell the tale of Danny Boodmann TD Lemon Novecento, a jazz pianist born at the turn of the last century on an Atlantic liner and who never set foot on land in his life.

Novecento makes for a more heartening opening theatrical offering in the Edinburgh International Festival than for some years, although its theatricality is triple-distilled. Actor Tom McCamus remains seated, all but immobile in what gradually appears to be the liner's engine room, rising to his feet only for the final ten minutes or so of this 90-minute piece. Alessandro Baricco's monologue may have been filmed (by Giuseppe Tornatore, with Tim Roth bizarrely cast in the title role), but in its original version the story, recounted by Novecento's friend and musical foil, trumpeter Tim Tooney, is all.

Marc Parent's lighting design is forever shifting, usually too slowly for the eye to follow, the usual dimness only occasionally broken by moving curtains of white light streaming up from grilles in the floor. Nancy Tobin's soundscape blends engine noises with treated piano sounds indeed, it would not surprise me if the whole fabric had been generated out of a single piano. McCamus rigorously avoids any vocal pyrotechnics which might detract from the content of the monologue: the discovery of the babe, Novecento riding a grand piano around the lounge at the height of a storm, a strange piano duel with Jelly Roll Morton and finally his decision to go to the bottom with the ship.

Baricco's claims to be interested only in the telling of the story may be disingenuous, but the story is clearly the fundamental tone from which all the thematic and subtextual harmonics are generated. As British theatre proves ever more ready to exalt monologists such as Conor McPherson (whose St Nicholas appears on the Fringe this year), this presentation by Théâtre de Quat'Sous of Montreal is another confirmation that compelling theatre can need little more than the vibrant core of the experience, the tale itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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