Named (in part) for the new century into which he was born, the foundling grows up on board the ship and never sets foot upon land. For him the ocean is home, bordered by docks and ports, while land is limitless and terrifying, land is the there-be-monsters place of nightmares.
Though he never receives a lesson, Novecento turns out to be a supremely gifted pianist, entertaining the passengers in steerage with his hypnotic music. He becomes the stuff of legend, as both an ocean-bound eccentric and a God-given jazz innovator; talk spreads far and wide about his music and people even travel in third class for the sole purpose of hearing him play.
Novecento’s story is narrated by his friend, the trumpeter Tim Tooney. His delivery is feverish and hip flask-fuelled as he relives the years they spent at sea together. Mark Bonnar’s performance is energetic and animated, sweaty and intense, and conveys a strong sense that this is a tale that has grown as it’s been retold (and retold and retold). There’s a loose-collared, bar room vibe to his narration that doesn’t detract from the magic but does underline it with doubt. The love for his friend and the hold that the past has on him have coloured his story and allowed it to fly.
This storytelling reaches its peak as Tooney describes a jazz duel between Novecento and the incredulous and over-confident Jelly Roll Morton, self-styled sire of jazz, with the two pianists trading increasingly complex riffs. There’s a similarly glorious moment where Tooney and Novocento ride a piano back and forth across the ship’s parquet ballroom floor during a storm, with Novecento playing the whole way. Only in the last twenty minutes or so does the writing lose its grip. The finale is baggy and melodramatic when compared to what has gone before.
Novecento’s phenomenal playing remains, of course, unheard, limited to Tooney's descriptions of its brilliance - his playing, we are told, is ‘impossible’, untethered to the ‘normal notes’ - but the production is not free of music, far from it - a dream-like lilt underscores the whole piece.
Paul Wills’ set, in its use of muted colours, feels in keeping with the Donmar’s familiar visual palette, while his use of riveted metal, dangling chains and copper piping evokes the clanking belly of the ship. Those rippling chains simultaneously give a sense of being on deck with the ocean beyond, a sense enhanced by Paul Keogan’s softly shifting lighting.
Director Roisin McBrinn, whose work this season was, in part, designed to showcase, knows how to handle a monologue, how to bring texture and pace to the text; she previously directed Mark O'Rowe’s ink-black triptych, Crestfall, at Theatre 503 and this piece achieves similar glimmers of intensity. Bonnar’s performance, while very big, very physical, in his gestures and delivery (clambering about on the set, hurling himself to the floor as he describes a storm) is also deceptively controlled. There’s a line that he observes and only on a couple of occasions does it feel as if he was overplaying things; again these moments were towards the end when the piece began to unravel and never quite righted itself.