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The Maestro’s Last Words

by on 5 February 2020

No Score

The Maestro’s Last Words

by Barry Langley

A Trevor Hartnup production at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 8 February

A review by Matthew Grierson

An old white man from a privileged background with an international reputation finds out he has lymphoma, but the lump is swiftly and successfully removed in a private hospital: it would be difficult to spoil the surprise of The Maestro’s Last Words as, sad to say, there isn’t any.

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The play attempts to overcome its dramatic deficit by being fortissimo from the outset, but, with so little at stake much of the incident feels contrived, bearing little sense of a reality with which we can engage. I appreciate we’re in an operatic milieu here, but there’s no modulation of the self-involved tone orchestrated by Sir Charles Ackroyd (Edmund Dehn). When, for instance, the conductor’s entourage visit him in hospital as he convalesces, they waste no time in running around screaming the place down with the threat of a lawsuit. There is no sense of crescendo, it’s a forced farce.

Yet the play doesn’t seem to be pitched as a comedy either. What jokes there are have little weight or build-up, as exemplified by the ill-judged interjections made by Sir Charles’s hapless secretary Hickton (Alexander Jonas) when his employer is entertaining morbid visions. The one joke that evidences some sense of structure is when soprano Madame Fontana (Violetta Gapardi) is invited to sing: assuming an operatic posture she then simply offers an anticlimactic: ‘No.’ I had thought this was to avoid the need to cast a trained singer, but Gapardi acquits herself admirably in this regard when she does get to sing.

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Intimations of mortality ought to give an author something worthwhile to work with, whether they were going for introspection or dark comedy, but Barry Langley’s script is a series of rococo flourishes off the idea without taking it anywhere. This is typified by dumping information into the dialogue so we know exactly how he has conceived the characters, rather than taking us on a journey with them. Exhibit A: ‘You know I always conduct without looking at the score,’ says Sir Charles, telling Fontana something that she is explicitly already aware of. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘you’re world-famous for it.’ So now we know.

For a play so ostensibly concerned with music it’s surprising that all the characterisation is one note: Hickton is a toady, producer Herr Kleist (Stephen Riddle) is hysterical, Fontana is a diva, the Sister (Robin Miller) is firm but fair. If the story doesn’t develop, then the characters seemingly can’t. That’s not to say that Dehn isn’t watchable as Sir Charles, and present onstage for much of the play he sustains what momentum it has. He manages to convey something of the man’s ego and the physicality of his illness, but he is never allowed the opportunity to show the distress or vulnerability that would make us sympathise with, if not warm to, him. Is his doctor trying to kill him? Will Fontana leave him for a rival? Or has he really thrown her over for a nurse? It’s not so much that I wasn’t clear, it was that I didn’t care.

Surgeon Professor Galt (Martin Wimbush) fares a little better. Former schoolmate to Sir Charles – and long-time rival in a tiresome ‘two cultures’ debate that rears its head every now and again – he has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that the twinkly Wimbush brings to life, as when he joshes with his patient by sharpening a carving knife before an operation. But then I suppose am inclined to sympathise with a man who only goes to a show because he was given a complimentary ticket.

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Nurse Hodges could be a breath of fresh air, too. Certainly in Mimi Tizzano’s unaffected performance she’s the most relatable of the characters, with a lighter touch when it comes to humour – I did actually chuckle when she told the recumbent conductor: ‘Your famous last words might be “Nurse! Get your pen out!”’ But the script largely lumbers her with being a dim-witted caricature of a working-class professional.

The show ends with Fontana’s rendition of ‘Song to the Moon’, a resurrected Sir Charles clad in his dressing gown conducting her, but the significance of her doing so is, like much of what happens in the play, unclear. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy and not plausible enough to be drama, so I still can’t see what The Maestro’s Last Words is trying to be.

Matthew Grierson
February 2020

One Comment
  1. Matthew Y permalink

    Oh dear! Sounds like a grim night out.

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