IN BRIEF Mesmerising hybrid musical explores Rachmaninoff’s journey through hypnotherapy to wellness in a fascinating show with moments of sublime musicality

PRELUDES is intriguingly subtitled “A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff” and it lives up to that promise in all departments. Ambitious, adventurous, and stuffed with ideas, this is a real one-of-a-kind. And at a moment when mental health issues are being recognised for their universality, this welcome show about triumph over illness strikes a hopeful note.

Dave Malloy’s boundary-pushing, shape-shifting musical deals with the Russian composer Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block brought on by a huge public embarrassment (a disastrous first performance of his first Symphony) at an early age. The show opens as he begins hypnotherapy sessions in an attempt to work through his three-year long block which has brought him financially and spiritually low, and to resume his early promise as a “big deal composer”.

Nominally set in Russia in 1900 and in Rachmaninoff’s mind, the show mostly disregards setting and timeframe to focus on emotion, thoughts and feelings in a refreshing, unique way. Intriguingly, we feel that we are -in some way- actually inside Rach’s mind. This surrealism is destabilising as we, like Rach, never quite know where we are or why things are happening, which brings with it a slightly heady feeling that anything could happen next. “Do you really think that you and I are talking right now?” one of the heroic characters asks Rach.

Cleverly splitting the Rachmaninoff character between two artists, Rach the composer (Keith Ramsay) and Rachmaninoff the performer (Tom Noyes) allows both men to do what they do best.

Inside Rach’s head, he encounters/recalls disappointing versions of heroic folk such as Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov and more (all played by Steven Serlin) as he slowly works through his thoughts and demons, punctuated by an unsettling encounter with overwhelming negativity at the start of act two.

Ever-near, Rach’s fiancée Natalya is a caring and concerned lover who feels powerless to help, expressed in her cri de coeur, an exquisite rendering of her song ‘Natalya’ which closes the first act.

Keith Ramsay’s edgy, lost, bewildered Rach is played with a vulnerable intensity; his breakthrough at the end of the piece leaves him visibly shaken, which communicates emotionally through the auditorium. He masterfully carries the long, detailed musical and dialogue passages describing his day (at the start of the show) and towards the end, reliving the fateful evening when his reputation was damaged, his breakdown is vivid, described meticulously, at length; he is impressively on top of his material. An engrossing performance which held the audience rapt.

Rebecca Caine as Dahl the hypnotherapist provides an anchor, authority and assurance, and her guidance illuminates passages of Rach’s journey, using her superb operatic voice to great effect at the show’s climax. Georgia Louise as Nataliya is moving in her solo piece which closes act one, sings exquisitely, and throughout she works outstandingly in harmony with Ramsay’s Rach to evidence the couple’s closeness and her feelings of sadness.

Composer/Lyricist, Writer and Orchestrator Malloy selects pieces of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, along with other classical composers’ work, brought to his own inspirations to craft a free-flowing, highly inclusive and ambitious score which takes in everything from classical to trance to electro to religious forms. And it works.

The music rises and falls throughout, echoing waves of emotion, while a pulsing heartbeat reminds us that this is a very human work. At times the music even becomes an enchanting underscore for the story being told about it. It is obvious that much love and care has been poured into this score.

Moments of sublime musicality – such as the wedding sequence -were beautifully, simply staged and heightened by singing of the highest order. We definitely need a recording from this superb cast!

Director Alex Sutton has created a mesmerising, meditative show that is a deeply satisfying journey in itself. A simple but effective set employs thin bands of lighting cannily to produce interesting rhythmic movement, complementing the subtle pulses of the music.

Finally, the audience’s satisfaction in the journey that Rach has made, coming through his own hell, is palpable and moving. A fascinating and complex portrait of therapy’s value to help untangle life’s setbacks, PRELUDES reminds us that these issues are universal and timeless – and that they can be managed and overcome, so that we can all fulfil our potential. Highly recommended.

PRELUDES plays at Southwark Playhouse until 12 October. Information and tickets here

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