Danielle Tarento, in association with Citric Acid Productions,




Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy


Southwark Playhouse

6 September – 12 October 2019

Review by Clive Burton


Rachmaninoff could never quite shake off his place in history as a virtuoso pianist and a composer overwhelmed by the phenomenal early success of his Prelude in C# minor, a leitmotif that haunted him throughout his life.


Trying to emulate its popularity sent the youthful composer into a spiral of depression and despair and caused what we would call ‘writer’s block’ which lasted for years, all but paralysing his creative functions.


Seeking to analyse the reasons behind his success apparently only exacerbated the situation, driving the young genius to seek professional assistance from a hypnotherapist.


Preludes is an overly-ambitious play with music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy, who may well be trying to emulate his own success with the acclaimed Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.


Despite exemplary casting by Danielle Tarento, and exceptional staging that takes us inside the distraught composer’s head to share his every thought, it’s very much a hit and (mainly) miss affair, the tuneless tunes and lustreless lyrics failing to strike home or engage the audience - even in the fragrant mundanity of Lilacs, which only really makes sense towards the end. 


Rach's paralysing melancholia is compounded by a disastrous first performance of his First Symphony; conducted by a drunken Glazunov, it was universally reviled by the critics in a tirade of abuse that pitched its composer into paroxysms of self-doubt.


He seeks to escape his debilitating depression through the ministrations of Rebecca Caine’s hypno-therapist, Dahl. Sweet voiced and ever patient, she tries to lift his block by applying the newly-developed precepts of her calling.


Unfortunately for the audience, these therapy sessions prove as hard-going as the real thing with substantial passages of mumbo jumbo (reminiscent of the self-help tapes some people play to assist sleep) to be endured en route to a conclusion that is never quite resolved.


Keith Ramsay is quite astounding as the wild-eyed man-child Rach, a tousle-haired Petrushka figure with Chaplinesque eyes and a permanent air of sadness as (in one of many imagined scenes) he waits for the Czar to give approval to wed his cousin, Georgia Louise's besotted Natalya.


As befits a journey into the mind of a madman/genius, no one can be sure how much of Preludes is fact and how much fiction; the chaotic on-stage scenes with Norton James’s Chaliapin may well be justifiable by the nature of Rach’s affliction (although clarity of diction is sacrificed for the sake of histrionic effect) but they make for uncomfortable viewing as does much of this muddled piece.


As Rachmaninoff - Rach’s alter ego sitting behind an on-stage baby grand - Tom Noyes remains ever-poised to play a handful of the master’s most popular pieces in truncated form, which brings a certain down-to-earth elation that such miraculous compositions could have been coaxed from the reluctant wreck we meet at the start.


But history attests to this miraculous truth and humanity is all the better for it. If only the same could be said for this often-pretentious show itself.


Musical theatre has already definitively proved how fascinating the exploration of the creative process can be in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, beside which Malloy’s work fades into dull comparison. Preludes may, indeed, be an audacious and in some ways ground-breaking, work  that one longs to like - but it proves so mis-guided that one simply cannot warm to it.


Start Time 7:30pm

Matinee Starts 3pm

Running Time 145 mins including interval

Price £27.50 | £22 concessions | All previews £16

Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway
London, SE1 6BD
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
(Mon – Fri, 10am – 6pm)