Joe Penhall’s greatest hits as a dramatist have been a play about psychiatrists, Blue/Orange (2000), and the script for Sunny Afternoon, a 2014-16 West End musical about The Kinks and the rivalrous dynamic between Ray and Dave Davies while composing and recording “You Really Got Me”.
Penhall’s clinical and musical interests are counterpointed in his new play, Mood Music, which features a dispute over songwriting credits between Bernard, a veteran mockney pop despot, and Cat, an Irish singer-songwriter prodigy.
Ray Davies has claimed that his brother can be heard telling him to “fuck off” in the background of “You Really Got Me” and, from what we see on stage, acoustic analysis could reveal a scatological backing track underneath Cat’s hit album, produced by Bernard. The creative wants to make new sounds while the producer introduces echoes of proven commercial successes.
The play moves fluidly, geographically and chronologically, between the recording studio and rooms in Harley Street and the Inns of Court where, a year later, Cat and Bernard are consulting separately those omnivorous rhinoceros birds of their business: psychotherapists and lawyers. The legal minds explore counter-allegations – Cat’s plagiarism of Bernard, his exploitation of her – while the mental experts probe the producer’s control issues and the singer’s out-of-control substance abuse issues.
Running under Mood Music is a hum of disquiet about the gender dynamics of the industry. Although the “girl power” of the Spice Girls was seen as a feminist force, the band were under the creative control of a man, Simon Fuller. And, subsequently, the most powerful women in pop – Adele, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry – have tended to write with or be produced by men.
Audiences in the Old Vic, a theatre once run by Kevin Spacey (accused of multiple sexual misbehaviours), are likely to be hyper-aware of post-Weinstein sensitivities over abuse of creative power. But the self-destructive cases of Amy Winehouse and Avicii suggest that the potential of the music industry to wreck young lives is not always a product of misogyny or sexism, and Penhall makes Cat’s damage broader than #MeToo. She is revealed to have been placed in one situation that no young woman should endure, but the evidence is muddled enough that Penhall does not make it easy for theatre-goers to convict Bernard.
Largely, though, the character sentences himself through Ben Chaplin’s enjoyable portrayal of a monstrous egotist who cannot feel empathy. Encouraged by his therapist to reflect on how one of his ex-wives might have felt about a particular transgression, Bernard responds bemusedly: “How would I possibly know that?” And Penhall has a good way with gags. During a legal debate about the ownership of a riff, the producer says: “The thing you have to understand about bass players is that they’re not musical.”
Although the play finally feels too weighted against the antagonist, Penhall and Chaplin offer a fascinating psychological study of a man who has become rich by creating songs in which consumers recognise emotions and insecurities that Bernard is incapable of feeling himself.
Making her English theatrical debut, Dubliner Seána Kerslake finds all the notes of vulnerability, creativity, and humour in Cat, although could have done with more moments when she is not so simply the victim. In the roles of the shrinks and silks, four very good actors (Jemma Redgrave, Pip Carter, Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke) are cramped by the professional distance and reactive register that is required of psychiatric and judicial practitioners.
Yet, as disputes over who contributed what to an outcome are common in science, business and politics, the play also has broader resonances. Such questions as whether production always involves reduction – or whether success damages people or damaged people become successful – sound beyond the recording studio.
“Mood Music” runs until 16 June
The Old Vic, London SE1
Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the new play at the Old Vic Mood Music, the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino and celebrate the noniversary of Willow.
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran