2 PIANOS 4 HANDS
Birmingham Rep
Opened 26 January, 1999

Sneaky. Canadians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt realised back in their late teens that they lacked the talent or the application to make careers as classical pianists; they make adequate livings working in theatre; but they are now pre-eminent in the field of theatrical shows about their failure as classical pianists.  2 Pianos 4 Hands a Canadian and off-Broadway smash now redirected by Jeremy Sams for British audiences is a kind of cartoon autobiography of their parallel experiences (Dykstra in Edmonton, Greenblatt in Montréal), from their earliest days as dumb seven-year-olds knowing nothing about key or time signatures until their respective rude awakenings a decade later.

The stage is bare except for a couple of grand pianos; the performers play numerous roles each, but remain in their formal concert schmutter throughout. The narrative emerges from the chronological arrangement of the intertwining sketches this is an amiable entertainment rather than full-blown drama. The snub-featured, mop-haired Dykstra is a more natural, more eager comedian, ready to mug horrendously or throw himself into ludicrous shapes, but the slightly moon-faced Greenblatt keeps up with him most of the time. Perhaps inevitably, one of the scenes consists of a one-piano, four-hands duet-cum-unarmed combat routine (not quite as violent as that performed by musical comedians Miles & Millner in the early Nineties, but not far off); in contrast, the finale is an absolutely straight rendition of Bach's D minor piano concerto.

The laughs of recognition are many and warm: even those of us who were never coerced into day after day of agonising childhood music practice are familiar with events and character types such as the slyly probing conversation between rivals in a competition, the emotional blackmail by a deal-making parent, or the unexpected nudge-nudgery of the elderly tutor who instructs the adolescent Greenblatt to play his arpeggios one-handed because it impresses the chicks. In contrast, the scenes in which the two are summarily rejected by a classical conservatory and a "jazz faculty", although fictional, are truly harrowing. (Greenblatt here pulls off the feat of playing "My Funny Valentine" in a style which is audibly "white" and classically influenced without ever veering into parody.) It all makes for an endearing 90 minutes, and the presence in the press night audience of at least one senior West End booker suggests that this Birmingham run will not be the last that British audiences see of Dykstra and Greenblatt.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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