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What We're Watching: Virtuoso

The line between genius and mania is usually very thin, and never thinner than in Room 5064’s production of Virtuoso.

It is the true story of John Ogden, the greatest ever English (Mancunian) piano player, you probably never heard of. William Humble’s script, originally performed by Alfred Molina and Alison Steadman, follows the troubled ivory tinkler on his journey from maestro to miser, as he struggles with mental illness. Haunted by the spectre of his father, who also suffered, those around him fade away as the cash cow runs out of milk.

After we are treated to some footage of the real Ogden performing in his pomp, the lights come up on a cluttered stage (a baby grand piano would be difficult to move on and off in a fringe theatre), and Ogden (Simeon Truby) is at the keys again, but this time, much depleted, observed by his psychiatrist (Matt Seber) and his wife Brenda (Kerry Willison-Parry).

We flash forward to the good times, and Ogden has just completed a sell-out show and is being interviewed by an adoring press, flanked by his adoring wife. All is well, but from the start, Ogden has a childlike, fragile quality. The piece is set in the 70s, but a modern audience would recognise a form of autism in the musician.

His conversations are not like that of an adult. Brenda, very much the Sharon Osbourne of the piece, mothers him and manages his career, and seemingly his whole life. He gets his agent Martin (Lloyd Peters) to take him to a Wimpey, and tells him he yearns to go on Top of the Pops.

Martin worries they are working him too hard, with too much travel and concerts. ‘Slogger Ogger’ he calls him. Brenda seems to think he’ll be ok.

Ogden’s fragile temperament soon fractures and his temper surfaces. We are introduced to the twin devils on his shoulders, a disapproving teacher, and his father, who suffered from schizophrenia (both played with relish by Peter Gibson). They are portrayed by voices in Ogden’s head, and visions that only he can see.

The play raises the points about where mental illness comes from. Was it the overwork, and the detachment from real life that fame brings? Or is it hereditary, handed down by father, a sword of Damocles forever over his head? Or the guilt at leaving his family to die whilst he chased his dreams? Whichever, Ogden both fears and accepts it as inevitable, and eventually descends into self-harm and violence.

Brenda, along with Ogden’s flowery composer Gerard (Martin Wenner) and his wife Carolyn (Morag Peacock), seem to care more about the effect of Ogden’s sanity on his talent, rather than his person. ‘Do you want a mad genius or a sane, normal man’, asks his psychiatrist before they begin ECT. ‘I married a genius’, is his wife’s reply.

A play about mental illness would normally be an unfunny affair, but Sue Jenkins has directed a piece with lots of laughs. The spectre of his father cavorts and gurns, sometimes very blackly, and the rain man like pianist comes out with some ‘kids-say-the-funniest-things’ come backs to his more adult peers. And although the picture gets bleaker and bleaker, there are lots of moments of joy in the little pleasures taken in simple things.

Truby creates a very likeable central character, and even in his darkest moments, I think we side with him rather than his wife, who only ever seems worried about the money. But he still loves her, and the end made me want to learn more about this troubled genius, and where his life went from here.

Virtuoso played at Three Minute Theatre, Manchester, and starred LALD actors, Peter Gibson and Matt Seber.

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