The Ballad of Hattie and James at the Kiln Theatre

Samuel Adamson’s new play is ambitious and erudite, offering razor-sharp observations and wit throughout but, after a punchy start, it loses some of its focus and energy in its second act when it starts to feel slightly maudlin. Nonetheless as a study of attachment between two creative people – out of which neither ever really grows – The Ballad of Hattie and James manages to offer something fresh even if certain moments of it are less inspired than others.

Sophie Thompson, Suzette Llewellyn - Photo by Mark Senior.
Sophie Thompson, Suzette Llewellyn – Photo by Mark Senior.

Although this is the story of Hattie (Sophie Thompson) and James (Charles Edwards) the ‘ballad’ itself is also a present character, with live virtuoso piano filling the theatre thanks to Berrak Dyer on the keys. Director Richard Twyman certainly runs with Adamson’s direction to “have fun with a big box of theatre tricks. The grand piano can move with elegance and take everything thrown at it.” It is indeed thrilling to be immersed in the music of Hattie and James’ world: exacting, brilliant and at times devastating.

Jon Bausor’s design, with both a revolve and a tilted stage, moves between scenes theatrically whilst still rooting us in a place of naturalism – if not quite kitchen sink – as the metaphor of the St Pancras departures board signals all manner of other comings-and-goings through time and feeling.

Charles Edwards as James is magnificent. His timing is perfect; his characterisation profound. I could have happily watched him do a stand-up routine based on this character alone – with his snappy albeit neurotic dialogue that only Hattie can puncture. Sophie Thompson is also compelling as Hattie, with her adoration of Fanny (not Felix) Mendelsohn and her deadpan critique of Death in Venice and James’ Britten-worship. Suzette Llewellyn, multi-rolling as every other adult character, puts in the hard yards admirably but I did wonder what casting different actors in at least some of the six roles she plays might have brought to the party.

The symmetry between authoritarian school musical director Mrs Arbuthnot and Hattie’s academic wife Bo is underlined in both the text and the casting, but I’ve noticed some of the most resplendent and thorough productions at the Kiln give way to a patchiness when ancillary characters are cast on what seems more like budgetary than creative grounds. Having said this, one of the questions the play asks is ‘who is the love of Hattie’s life?’ and we can see that she is propelled by the impression of her first music teacher to her first girlfriend whilst collaborating and competing with James until their divergence leads to tragedy. Like a composition, there are refrains and a coda and we see this in the patterns of the people who come and go in their lives. All of James’ other loves exist offstage whereas we meet each of Hattie’s as we witness their relationship and what they share and compete for.

This is a play for those who will get the Ted Hughes versus Syliva Plath banter. It is full of rich and clever references for those wanting to steep in ideas and reflection. The impending pandemic, and the thoughts of the HIV epidemic and its casualties it triggers, bring suspense and pathos – all wrapped in ideas as well as emotion. Adamson is masterful at weaving social observation around complex characters he creates. However, somehow the central dramatic plotting device doesn’t feel as real as the dynamic between these two richly drawn beings. Nonetheless, The Ballad of Hattie and James is an intriguing play with, I suspect, potential to go even bigger.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

An epic, life-spanning tale of friendship, music, and the moments that change you forever.

At St Pancras International, a woman sits at the piano and begins to play. The music captivates commuters, tourists and, following a viral clip, people around the world. Behind the music is the incredible story of a lifelong duet – the ballad of Hattie and James.

Throughout their lives, Hattie and James find themselves inextricably linked, for better or worse, and cannot help but replay the experiences that have shaped them.

An impassioned story from Samuel Adamson (Wife) that asks who gets to have their voice heard, and can you ever settle the score?

CAST
CHARLES EDWARDS – JAMES
SUZETTE LLEWELLYN – BO / MRS ARBUTHNOT / ROSAMUND / LOUISE / EVE / MADAME SCHULTZ
SOPHIE THOMPSON – HATTIE
ALIVIA MIHAYO – CHRISSIE
LUNA VALENTINE – CHRISSIE
BERRAK DYER – PIANIST
MAYA IRGALINA – ALTERNATE PIANIST

CREATIVE TEAM
PLAYWRIGHT – SAMUEL ADAMSON
DIRECTOR – RICHARD TWYMAN
DESIGNER – JON BAUSOR
LIGHTING DESIGNER – SIMISOLA MAJEKODUNMI
SOUND DESIGNER – PETE MALKIN
COMPOSERS – NICOLA T. CHANG & DAVID SHRUBSOLE
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – DAVID SHRUBSOLE
MOVEMENT DIRECTOR – ANJALI MEHRA
VIDEO DESIGNER – DAN LIGHT
CASTING DIRECTOR – LOTTE HINES CDG
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – ISOBEL PELLOW
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – ZOË TEMPLEMAN-YOUNG
https://kilntheatre.com/

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