Piano/Forte @ Royal Court Theatre, London

cast list
Alicia Witt
Kelly Reilly
Oliver Cotton
Danny Webb
Sebastian Gonzalez
Nuria Benet
Natalie Walter

written and directed by
Terry Johnson
Oscar Wilde once remarked that nothing succeeds like excess. Well, Terry Johnson has proved him wrong with his new play Piano/Forte, an extravagant mix of farce, black comedy, melodrama and erotic circus. The characters are defined by nymphomania, agoraphobia, ornithophobia, homicidal and suicidal tendencies, and incest – and that’s just the normal ones. Bare breasts abound and dildos are dangled, to the accompaniment of crashing piano chords and shotguns being fired. The result is an undeniably entertaining show which ultimately collapses under the weight of its own fatuous self-indulgence.

From the start Johnson seems unable to decide if he’s writing a dysfunctional family pyschodrama or a broad social satire. Wild child Louise returns to the large country house where her medicated sister Abigail lives with Ray, the brother of their Australian classical pianist mother who committed suicide when they were children. Louise is determined to sabotage the forthcoming wedding of their disgraced Tory MP father Clifford, whom she blames for their mother’s death and their step-mother’s madness. He is about to take as his third wife a glamour model half his age called Dawn whom he met in a celebrity jungle TV reality show, with Hello! gazzumping OK! to cover the ceremony.

Mark Thompson’s wooden-pannelled mock Tudor set suggests a fake traditional value well suited to a story where skeletons tumble out of cupboards in a sort of macabre mass hysteria. Louise’s narcissistic intentions to outrage are evident from the way she persuades the passive Abigail to let her into the house, then immediately smashes a family portrait over the staircase, before introducing herself topless to her father’s fiance. But that’s nothing compared with later, when she arranges two Spanish trapeze stripper friends to swoop down on the happy couple, then afterwards forces Clifford at gunpoint to reveal what really happened to her mother.

The trouble with Johnson’s sensationalized play (which he also directs, surely a mistake here when critical detachment is so desperately needed) is that, like Louise, it just seems to be doing things for effect. While there are plenty of amusing lines and some thought-provoking moments, everything is laid on too thick so that it’s impossible to emotionally engage with any of the characters for very long. In addition to all her other attention-seeking behaviour, does Louise really have to get involved in a threesome with the sexual gymnasts? And does Abigail need to have a stammer as well as being terrified of open spaces and birds? Sometimes less is more.

The fraught but touching relationship between the two contrasting siblings is the strongest feature of the play, thanks to two outstanding performances from Alicia Witt as Abigail (Piano) and Kelly Reilly as Louise (Forte). Reilly’s aggressively confrontational Lulu may bully her younger sister but she also tries to persuade her give up her sedatives and make the most of her talent for piano-playing, while Witt’s seemingly docile Abi is intimidated by her older sister but is capable of considerable manipulation herself.

Oliver Cotton is unable to do much with the underwritten part of Clifford, a Neil Hamilton-type politician (we never learn what scandal he has been involved in) who has embraced shallow celebrity culture wholeheartedly, though Natalie Walter gives the dim-witted but well-intentioned Dawn a surprising amount of charm. Danny Webb lends the hard-drinking Ray a decent blokeishness but his love for Abigail is totally unbelievable.

Piano/Forte is Johnson’s fourth play for the Royal Court, and easily his weakest. In the past he has successfully written plays, usually dealing with icons of popular culture, such as Insignificance and Hitchcock Blonde, that both entertain and challenge, but here all subtlety has been sacrificed. Indeed, the play often teeters on the edge of self-parody – especially when Abigail accompanies Louise’s threatening behaviour with portentous chords on the piano – as if half-aware of the absurdity of it all.

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