Can beauty not just survive but actually thrive in a time of evil? Rather a deeply philosophical question you might think, yet at St James Theatre, Victoria whilst watching The Pianist of Willesden Lane, I found out that the answer was a resounding, Yes It Can!
In 1938 a young girl by the name of Lisa Jura set off on her normal trip across Vienna to her music professor for her weekly piano lesson. It is a routine she knows well and as she travels she dreams of the day that she will get to perform the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor in the Musikverein Concert Hall. However, when she arrives at the professor’s things are not normal. There is a guard outside the door, a guard in a grey uniform with a swastika on his arm – it was March and the long promised Anschluss had finally happened. Under the regime’s rules, it was now illegal to teach Jewish children and Lisa went home, little realising in her young mind, how much the world was about to change for her and her family. As the Nazis’ power grew, so things got worse for the family until they really came to a head in November as the infamous pogrom against the Jewish population – Kristallnacht – took place throughout the Third Reich. However, for young Lisa, there was a spark of light as her father had managed to get her a ticket out of Austria and over to England via the Kindertransport programme.
I’m going to end the synopsis there as this is a story that deserves to be heard and seen and, let’s be frank, writer/performer Mona Golabek can tell it so much better than I ever could. This is in part because she is an amazingly talented performer but also because her knowledge of this remarkable story comes directly from her mother for Mona is the daughter of Lisa.
Lisa was a remarkable woman in her own right. Despite everything she went through in Austria, she managed to make a life for herself in London and never let go of her dream of being a first rate pianist – even auditioning for the Royal Academy of Music whilst holding down a full time job making service uniforms. Lisa’s hope and optimism shine through the entire narrative and even when things were at their most negative, such as during the Blitz, Lisa managed to keep herself cheerful and kept her eye on her ultimate goal.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is not only one of the best things I have seen this year so far, it is really way up there as one of the best shows ever. Without doing any pre-reading, I was enraptured as soon as I entered the auditorium and saw Andrew Wilder’s wonderfully designed stage large gilt edged frames – which acted as windows on Lisa’s world – a black backdrop and on raised to the highest point in the center of the stage,a superb Steinway concert grand piano. Then the lights went down, Mona appeared and started to tell her mother’s tale, interspersed with some of my favourite pieces of piano music, and my eyes never left the stage for a moment. Mona has a wonderful stage presence and plays the piano like a true virtuoso.
Director/Adaptor Hershey Felder has done a fantastic job at distilling the original book down to a ninety minute show without losing anything on the way. The story is told is a factual way – I was amazed at how calmly Mona spoke of her mother’s time in Vienna – that gives the facts, allowing the audience to get to know and, more importantly grow to love Lisa. By the end of his remarkable tale, there were quite a few sniffles going on – yes, me included.
Review by Terry Eastham
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder | Performed by Mona Golabek
Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.
Invalid Displayed Gallery
Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitz, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Lisa Jura, a young Jewish pianist who is dreaming about her concert debut at Vienna’s storied Musikverein concert hall. But with the issuing of new ordinances under the Nazi regime, everything for Lisa changes, except for her love of music and the pursuit of her dream – as she is torn from her family and set onto the Kindertransport to London.
Featuring some of the world’s most beloved piano music played live on a Steinway concert grand piano, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is performer Mona Golabek’s true family story. The production makes its UK premiere at the St. James Theatre after critically acclaimed, sold out runs in New York, Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Until 27th February 2016
St. James Theatre
12 Palace Street | London | SW1E 5JA
0844 264 2140