Thursday 18 April 2024

Theatre Review: The Ballad of Hattie and James (Kiln Theatre)


A decades-spanning play about loss and forgiveness, talent and time, music and memory, centred around a thorny, complicated male/female friendship, Samuel Adamson's The Ballad of Hattie and James tells the story of the title protagonists - piano prodigies who meet as teens in the mid-1970s to collaborate on a college production of Benjamin Britten's  Noyes' Fludde

Inevitably, perhaps, they're a contrasting pair: James a stuttery, pretentious boy who flaunts his high cultural ideals like a badge of honour, and she an unruly middle-class girl, open to contemporary music, who turns up at rehearsal with a bottle of booze in her bag. Adamson's writing - rude, allusive, surprising and tender by turns - is attentive to the places where their experiences and temperaments connect and diverge - and how an early tragedy ends up shaping both their personal and professional lives in different ways.

Though not quite as ambitious as Adamson's last play Wife (2019), which traced and placed queer currents in and around productions of a A Doll's House over many years, The Ballad of Hattie and James shows a similar interest in time and its impact on creative artists. In Wife, a tambourine used in the Doll's House tarantella scene became a talisman passed down over decades. Here a similar function is served by a Bechstein piano owned by Hattie's family, coveted by James, and over which the two bond and bicker through the years.

Again, Adamson includes a futuristic flourish, but adopts a non-linear structure to tell this particular story - dropping in on Hattie and James at various points, moving backwards and forwards in time, as their dynamic shifts and changes. 

At first you might wish for a more straightforward telling. But the structure, elegantly managed in Richard Twyman's astute production, gives the piece a richness of texture  and pays off emotionally in the second half. Layering in references from Britten to Bush to Pulp's "Disco 2000", the play is much concerned with how music shapes identity - and vice versa - and how gender has impacted upon the career trajectories and expectations of musicians through history. 

A depiction of a friendship between a gay man and a gay woman is a rarity on stage or screen, and neither the writing nor the performances sentimentalise the protagonists, who are often prickly, selfish, or blinkered but retain our interest and affection, in all their recognisable flaws. 

With a Penguin book in his cardigan pocket and perfect pitch (but dodgy cords), Charles Edwards incarnates in James a certain species of gawky Englishman, smug and shy at once, dismissive in a kneejerk way of the female composers and writers who mean so much to Hattie. But Edwards also reveals the sense of sadness and loss underpinning James' attitudes. As often, Sophie Thompson seems on the cusp of doing too much, vocally and physically, yet keeps an emotional truth in her performance, including in her most florid moments to make Hattie a vital force even when at her lowest.  The mix of competitiveness and complicity that pair's interactions 

With Suzette Llewellyn multi-roling to great effect, and a pianist on stage to tackle the musical interludes, Twyman's production remains intimate but conveys the vagaries of fate and time and creative expression, a brief ballet of past moments bringing the piece together in a beautiful way. 

The Ballad of Hattie and James is booking at the Kiln Theatre until 18 May.