Pros: Earfuls of live piano music, but not a musical; a one-woman, uplifting and true account of a Jewish child sent to England by her parents to safeguard her from the Nazis.
Cons: The presentation lacks complexity and conflict; there’s too much piano-playing for the musically fainthearted or the theatre-goer seeking tension on the stage.
Don’t do what I did and fail to arrive at the St. James Theatre in time for the 7pm press night of The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Arriving just before 7.30pm, I was mortified to find the foyer empty except for two others in the same predicament; top marks to the theatre staff for managing to smuggle us in without disturbance. On the stage, American concert pianist Mona Golabek was coming to the end of a helpfully loud piece of music, and I was settled into my seat before she stepped away from the grand piano and began relating an emotionally-charged moment that occurred in Vienna’s train station in 1938. Mona Golabek becomes the child Lisa Jura and her parents are saying goodbye to her—they will never see each other again—before she departs for relative safety in Britain.
Lisa is just one of the nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children who made the train journey that became known as the Kindertransport. It saved them from the Holocaust about to be unleashed across a Nazi-occupied Europe and they each travelled with one small suitcase. Each child was also assigned a number by which they would be identified on arrival in England. There is scope here for a parallel between Lisa’s journey and that of those who travelled by train to death camps. They also carried a suitcase of personal belongings and would also be identified by a number instead of a name. Such a parallel is not explored in The Pianist of Willesden Lane and it points to a central weakness in this play: it never really dives into the dark depths. Lisa’s life story is told with heartfelt conviction but any drama, especially one that touches on the Holocaust, requires at least some tension or uncertainty, and Lisa’s story unfolds largely without it.
To be fair, this is a one-person show by a concert pianist — not an actor — and as the real-life daughter of Lisa Jura she brings to the production a personal and moving dimension that lifts it above a corny tale of hope and survival. Golabek plays the piano with extraordinary ability. The music provides the emotional register, signalling important narrative movements while moving from Beethoven to Bach, from Chopin to Rachmaninoff. Golabek is alone on stage with a grand piano, the only theatrical addition a series of projections onto screens behind her. Unfortunately, very little is added by the familiar images of bombs falling from planes or an unnecessary portrait of George VI. When the visuals improve, with portrayals of family members and other Kindertransport children, their projection and accompanying sound effects make minimum impact. But with Golabek’s powerful presence on stage, that’s a very small complaint.
Please note that, due to the reviewer missing part of the show, this review does not reflect the performance in its entirety.
Original Authors: Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Adapted and Directed By: Hershey Felder
Producer: Samantha F. Voxakis
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking Link: https://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/theatre/the-pianist-of-willesden-lane/
Booking Until: 27 February 2016