Hen and Chickens Theatre
“You probably thought I was going to play the cello” muses American, Karen Hall. She is completely right; why else would it be there otherwise? But that says much about how we see Hall; as a musician and not a person in her own right, who clearly just wants to eat her Subway 6 inch sandwich more than anything else right now.
Hall is a master of the cello; except having spent so much of her life mastering it, she is beginning to question if that is all she now is. What, she ponders, would she be without her dearest friend, her cello?
It may sound a strange question, but she’s put much thought into it to make this show. She walks us through the attrition rate of musicians: how many stop playing due to injury (repetitive strain injury – a career-ending hazard), and how many suffer mental health issues. Plus, there is the important question of making a living, as she points out that America doesn’t fund arts in the same way we do in this country. Again, there’s that question: what else are you if your whole life has been about mastering one thing alone?
The show ebbs and flows like music. We do get to hear the cello, as she turns to it regularly between her storytelling. And wow! when she plays it is mesmerising. Seeing her perform from just the length of a few Subway sandwiches away is a sight to behold. From this close you see every detail; the movement of fingers on strings; the angle of the bow. Hall may be asking us to see her beyond her cello, but when she plays it is impossible not to think of them as a single entity.
Away from the music, Hall is also a fine performer, her comic timing as impeccable as her playing. She knows not only when a note is needed but, just as importantly, when there is a need for a silence. In doing so she leaves us time to absorb her words.
As she details the nitty gritty of her chosen career she really lays herself bare to us, and not only metaphorically. Clever costuming allows her to slowly strip off first her elegant gown to reveal jeans, later discarding those to reveal a short, sparkly dress, as she explains how at times she isn’t even hired for her playing but her looks. It’s another clever insight into how we can reduce a master of their art to just physical appearance and long, bare legs.
As her demeanour changes so does her playing. What was once soothing becomes angry and forceful and then sad, and we see the tears of a clown run down her cheek. But it’s still so amazing to hear and watch her play. Her cello is her lover, her life partner. When she wraps her coat around the closed case it even looks human. “I don’t know where I end and you begin” she confesses, as if addressing a lover, and after hearing her story we now understand exactly why this is true.
Why would you bear your soul to a tiny theatre audience when you’ve played to thousands with your cello? Maybe because here Hall is finally allowed to show she is more than just that one facet of her life.
“The show must go on” she tells us as she prepares to leave, “but no one tells you when it finishes. Or who you are when it does.” Judging by this evening, Hall’s show will continue long after she decides to pack up her instrument for one final time. This is a wonderful performance both with and without her trusty cello, but wow! when she plays it really is something.
Written by: Karen Hall
Delusions and Grandeur plays at Hen and Chickens until 21 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.