PRELUDES at London's Southwark Playhouse
Keith Ramsay,Georgia Louse,Rebecca Caine: photo Scott Rylander

It is 1900 Moscow/Rachmaninoff's mind in this fantastical production written by David Malloy and directed by Alex Sutton; a production that will leave you reeling,exhausted but exhilarated as the tour de force plays through. By the end of Act 1 I flopped into my seat, physically drained by the electric performances I had seen. At the close of Act 11 my head was swimming, but oh boy, it was with hedonistic delight.

Based on and inspired by the true story of Rachmaninoff's breakdown following the harsh reception in Moscow to his Symphony No 1, the high expectations of his talents and the demands he placed on himself, Rach (the alter ego to Rachmaninoff) meets with his hypnotherapist, Dahl,to work through his personal crisis and face the world once more. In order to rise like the proverbial phoenix he must first work through his neuroses and nightmares, living them to extreme.

Time is meaningless. Not only are we taken through the tedium of his day (current time) but we are transported to real time as we return to Rachmaninoff sitting silently by his baby grand piano, desperately trying to please those around him and himself. There, with fiancee Natalya, expectations are high. The agony of his mental anguish does not observe chronology; it is timeless.

This complex and complicated depiction is created by the throbbing and pulsating beat that breathes through the two acts, echoing not only the constant panic of Rach but our own unease and rising hysteria. It cannot be said to feel comfortable, and purposely so. Observing the hypnotherapy session and the haunting repetitiveness of Dahl is gripping and terrifying but compulsive at the same time. We witness Rach's melancholy and fear and we imbibe it. 

Rach, brilliantly portrayed by Kevin Ramsay, is a deeply troubled soul reminiscent of the Romantics living in his own personal hell and unable to distinguish between reality and illusion. At times aware of his present, at others discoursing with Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and Tsar Nicholas, each played spectacularly by Steven Serlin who assumes their characters with conviction, he verges on the brink of insanity but must work through these episodes in order to surface once again.

In two acts, with music, lyrics, book and orchestration by David Malloy and ingenious direction by Alex Sutton, this is a piece that challenges the concept of theatre as a means to dazzle, preferring to create something meaningful that can resonate in the minds of 'real people, living real lives in the real world'. Mental illness is currently high on our health agenda and it is expounded here. This is a living hell which is shown fully through the rolling eyes and energy off the Richter scale by Ramsay. Moving between the Rach/Rachmaninoff personae, it is a truly exhausting performance, no more so than when he enacts his terrifying illusions and fights his demons, realistically and crazily portrayed by Norton James whose gyrations on stage could almost be censored. Great stuff!

Preludes is an intriguing, stylized and high energy production devised with keen awareness by its creative team who demand much of our sensibilities. The minimalist staging (Rebecca Brower) in black with the haunting figure of the baby grand piano, the neon tubes in stark, vibrant colours (Christopher Nairne) and the throbbing, pulsating electric keyboards (Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant) hook us in immediately and we are held captive throughout. It is an exhausting spectacle which does not let up for the entirety. There are no stilted moments, our senses are sharpened.

Accolade must be paid to the dynamic cast who not only offer superb vocals but who give larger than life performances, undulating as demanded by the moment. Rebecca Caine as Dahl (the hypnotherapist) is ironically hypnotic and has a momentous moment that leaves us reeling. Georgina Louise plays Natalya with conviction and power, Norton James and Steven Serlin are dynamic in their different roles and Tom Noyce is subtly effective in his silence as Rachmaninoff. And of course Keith Ramsay who generously takes us with him on his journey.

Some might accuse Preludes  as being pretentious but I prefer to liken it to Lear's 'This way madness lies' or is it that this way genius begins!  At 2.5 hours (to include a 20 minute much needed break) this production is spectacular and whilst we may not leave humming the score, we take with us an evening of pure wonder.

Listings Information

 Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD
Performances Friday 6 September - Saturday 12 October 2019
Mondays to Saturdays 7.30 pm, Tuesday and Saturday matinees 3 pm.
Box Office  and 020 7407 0234 no booking fees
Ticket Prices £27.50, £22 (concessions).
Twitter @swkplay #PreludesLDN