Trafalgar Studio 2, London SW1
Opened 1 November, 2010
Alessandro Baricco's play (filmed as The Legend Of 1900 by Giuseppe Tornatore and starring Tim Roth) receives its UK stage première as part of the Donmar Warehouse's season showcasing its resident assistant directors in Trafalgar’s smaller studio. Róisín McBrinn and solo actor Mark Bonnar exploit the full range of dynamics from delicacy to tempest in this odd tale of an intuitively gifted pianist aboard a transatlantic passenger liner, found on board as an infant and who never set foot on land for the rest of his life. Danny Boodmann T.D. Lemon Novecento's full name is derived from the engineering hand who found the babe, the fruit box in which he was found and the century which, like him, was only days old at the time. Bonnar plays trumpeter Tim Tooney, with whom Novecento struck up an eccentric friendship at the peak of the jazz age.

Paul Wills' design wonderfully suggests the unglamorous below-decks: seams of rivets across the floor, sets of vertical pipes and an entire backdrop curtain (and overhead tracks) of chains, which catch the light atmospherically and are set swaying when the liner +Virginian+ runs into a storm in which Novecento appears to set his piano dancing with the very ocean. Ann Goldstein's translation is a smart mixture of American vernacular and the fantastical strain of Italian poeticism which informs the piece.

But poeticism can do only so much. An exhaustive account and an intelligent and original author's perspective (such as in Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus) cannot ultimately stave off the point at which one feels the truth of the saw that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That point arrives during Tooney's account of a piano “duel” between Novecento and Jelly Roll Morton: however gorgeous the descriptions, and however much we may be aware that this account (like the whole play) is really about intangibles of a much more numinous kind, we cannot but feel the inherent inadequacy. The space itself supplies the other main drawback: in the broad, low-ceilinged Studio 2, and especially in a solo piece, a little shouting goes a long way, and any more than a little goes right through you. Bonnar and McBrinn ride the script well, but it needs more vertical clearance than is available here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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