19th Aug, 2019

Review: Crooked Dances, RSC, Other Place, Stratford

The worlds of highbrow music-making and science fiction collide in this new piece by Robin French. And while it’s an entertaining collision, it’s one which clunks and grinds on many levels.

A reporter and photographer are in the forests of France to get the human interest angle on a concert pianist renowned for her taciturnity on the subject of her private life. It’s a meeting overseen by her long-time manager.

Distractions, delays, frostiness and missed trains turn what should be a swift turnaround into the need to stay overnight. We get plenty of preaching on the  failings of modern society when it comes to appreciating culture. It’s a battle of concentration versus phone and internet superficiality and, although the points have been made countless times, they’re well made here. So far so good.

The pianist seems fixated on the music of Erik Satie. Satie, with his whimsical, mysterious pieces and his equally unconventional lifestyle will always be a shortcut to oddity in the musical world. His music was vague and its simplicity opens the way for wide ranging interpretation. His flirtations with arcane religion and his eccentricity also appeal.

But perhaps even he would balk at what happens when this enjoyable play suddenly changes gear in the second half. His Crooked Dances, we’re invited to accept, when played in a particular way can open up some sort of time portal allowing us to live forever. Or something like that.

Before you can really catch where this path through the wolf-infested woods is leading us, we’re having a full out of body experience, braving the indoor rain, watching one woman disappear down the cracks of time and marvelling at the appearance of some sort of pagan ritual figure. Then we’re in an episode of classic ghost stories finding out that the woman whose spent the night lecturing us on the Montmartre occultist scene was simultaneously dying in a hospital.

It’s all good stuff and brilliantly played by Jeany Spark, Olly Mott, Ruth Lass and Ben Onwukwe. Both women also turn their hand to playing Satie’s music  at the piano. Four splendidly observed performances under Elizabeth Freestone’s direction on Basia Binkowska’s atmospheric, eerie design. There are plenty of references for the music fans to pick up on and those who know of David Tennant’s work away from the RSC will love the time-bending relativity plotline.

There’s humour and fun among the lecturing, but that sudden change is far from smooth and ultimately a little unconvincing. Time has always held a fascination, but time can also drag and there were plenty of opportunities to trim a little off the lengthy duration of this piece.

Matthew Salisbury

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