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Old Vic, London
“YOU can get a divorce from an abusive spouse. You can dissolve a partnership if the relationship becomes irreconcilable. The same opportunity — to be liberated from the physical, emotional and financial bondage of a destructive relationship — should be available to a recording artist."
Those are the words singer Kesha filed in a lawsuit against her producer Dr Luke, whom she accuses of emotional and sexual abuse.
But they could have easily come from the mouth of the female singer at the heart of Joe Penhall's latest play Mood Music. With her debut album catapulting her to stardom, Cat (Seana Kerslake) is in the position every young musician dreams about.
Except for the fact that her producer, “I am the music” Bernard (Ben Chaplin), is a master manipulator who seems hell-bent on turning that dream into a nightmare.
With outright ownership of all their collaborative work, an open willingness to use his position to get her singing to his tune and with a blatantly ruthless nature, Bernard is every bit the Phil Spector of his day.
Penhall's character flirts with cliche and the writer seems determined at times to leave him teetering on the edge of a spiky precipice, but what stops him falling over the edge is a masterful performance from Chaplin. There will not be a better casting choice this year, despite his replacing Rhys Evans at the last minute. Oozing arrogance, he induces shivers with every snarling twitch of his jaw.
As allegations of abuse arise, the deceit begins to destroy both singer and producer, but the spiral of decline appears irreversible for Cat as she drifts towards substance abuse — unlike Bernard, who's already on the hunt for the “next voice” to exploit.
Two lawyers and two psychologists complete the line-up of commandingly played characters, with the swift, overlapping dialogue flowing seamlessly between them.
Exploring intergenerational trauma, the deep conflict between capitalism and the creative process and the sexual politics of a deeply warped industry, Penhall's play is packed with sharp insights and killer one-liners.
Music may be the food of love, but Mood Music's exposure of its industry leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.
Runs until June 16, box office: oldvictheatre.com
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