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Payne: The Stars Are Fire and Holst: The Music in the Spheres

In the days before working time regulations and work-life balance, Gustav Holst (1874-1934) (Toby Wynn-Davies) quite literally, as this double-bill production would have it, worked himself blind. The loss of sight was, it appears, temporary: it was back for the second half of Holst: The Music in the Spheres – the interval was rather useful for the character. Holst is best known for the seven-movement orchestral suite called The Planets, and in particular, the middle section of the fourth movement, ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, was adapted by Holst to form the tune to the patriotic hymn, ‘I Vow To Thee, My Country’. The production gives into playing the famed tune eventually, with Holst conducting with much emotion, but there’s enough that went on in his life to justify a full-length play.

Holst: The Music in the Spheres
Holst: The Music in the Spheres

There wasn’t much money to be made from composing – and none at all when nobody would commission Holst’s works, with the music establishment (from what I could gather) believing them to be too left-field or avantgarde for their audiences to appreciate. He takes on teaching jobs to pay the bills – most of the focus here is on his role at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, a public day school. Homework was set, according to this show, more often than not to help advance Holst’s concerts, which the school’s High Mistress (as she was called), Frances Grey (Lucy Ioannou) seemingly more concerned that regular homework was being set in the first place rather than its precise nature.

The audience is given the full backstory of Holst’s life and times: at one point, for instance, the prefix ‘von’ was added to the family name because one of Holst’s ancestors thought it would give the family more prestige and credibility – by the time the First World War came along, ‘von’ was distinctly disadvantageous, sounding too Germanic for British ears. Holst’s father Adolph (Alex Stevens) is portrayed as a cold and uncompromising figure who never had reason to believe his son was even worthy of the name ‘Holst’. There are details about his (Gustav’s) time as a student at the Royal College of Music, and various people who became his friends and collaborators. A scene about the Hammersmith Socialist Choir was brief, but necessary – it is through his work with them (there is no indication he embraced socialism, and no indication that he didn’t) that he met Isobel Harrison (1876-1969) (Cornelia Baumann), a chorister who was to become his wife.

Payne: The Stars Are Fire
Payne: The Stars Are Fire

A lot is packed into this show, as well as its companion piece, Payne: The Stars Are Fire. The dialogue in both shows is sometimes very dense and demands much attention from its audiences. But it is never exhausting to watch. Cecilia Payne (1900-1979) (Laurel Marks), a pupil at St Paul’s, is told by Holst to pursue a career in music, but her scientific ambitions leave little room for anything else. Holst is, at least, able to persuade her that there is “measurement, accuracy and observation” required in conducting an orchestra as there is in the physics of the universe.

There’s much debate and discussion, and Payne leaves Britain for America, accepting a position at Harvard Observatory. The good news is that she was the first person to earn a PhD in Astronomy from Radcliffe College. The bad news is that her research work is either published under a different name or otherwise discredited altogether, such was the misogyny of the era. This is not wokery, or rewriting history – Henry Russell (1877-1957) (also Wynn-Davies, sporting a somewhat unconvincing moustache), an eminent astronomer, had indeed talked Payne into substantially altering her conclusions to the research findings in her PhD dissertation.

It is possible to become baffled by all the technical jargon in the two shows if one thinks about it too much. A particularly amusing moment comes when Frances Gray and Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958) (Edward Spence) start yelling Italian musical notation terms at each other. The dialogue is delivered at such a pace that it is, presumably deliberately, difficult to keep up with it all. But the overall narrative picture is never lost because the production follows Holst’s own philosophy that there needs to be an emotional expression in his compositions. Yes, there are gritty storylines, but they are told with such passion – without stumbling into melodrama – that they remain accessible despite their density and intensity.

Somewhat strangely, I did not feel the need to read any further into the lives of Holst and Payne, as their stories were told so comprehensively. There is a lingering thought about how much artistic licence has been used – how much do we really know about what was said between them in private conversations? Some choreographed scenes were bizarre: why were four people repeatedly polishing the same table at the same time? Nonetheless, the production does well to demonstrate that the work of geniuses such as these are only possible through collaboration with others who work just as hard as they do. These stories of triumph and adversity are insightful and inspirational.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Two interlinking plays, told on alternating nights by a single cast and produced by the award-winning and critically-acclaimed Arrows & Traps Theatre, The Dyer’s Hand Season promises to be one of the most exciting and captivating theatre events of the year.

HOLST: “The Music In The Spheres”
A fascinating and moving story about England’s greatest modern composer, Gustav Holst – covering his life as a music teacher and composer of the iconic Planets Suite. “HOLST” uncovers the man behind the music, as we follow Gustav as he champions for Arts for All, progressively bringing music and musicianship to both women and the working classes. Incorporating music from the famous Planets Suite, “HOLST” is a vibrant, melodious and triumphant story about the power of music and determination.

PAYNE: “The Stars Are Fire”
Picking up the story in “HOLST” five years later, “PAYNE” follows one of Holst’s most brilliant students – Cecilia Payne – as she begins her groundbreaking work in astronomy at Harvard Observatory in 1922. Following the course of her adult life, “PAYNE” is the story of one of England’s most under-appreciated scientific pioneers, telling a bold-hearted romance about one woman’s love affair with the stars..

The Schedule is as follows:
HOLST
12th, 14th, 19th, 21st April 7:45pm
16th & 23rd April 2:45pm

PAYNE
13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd April 7:45pm

Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre London

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