The Ballad of Hattie and James

Despite its creative past, and the theatre being less than 20 minutes from my front door, this is my first visit to The Kiln Theatre. It will not be my last. The refurbished theatre re-opened in 2018 and what a wonderful job has been done. Riding high on sending Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) into the West End, the Kiln presents the premiere of The Ballad of Hattie and James.

As you enter the spacious auditorium, an upright piano stands in the middle of the stage. No other hints of the perfectly crafted play we are about to experience. We are soon to meet Hattie (played by Sophie Thompson) and James (Charles Edwards). In the hands of these two actors we are given a masterclass in delivery. We are soon to find out that they were child prodigies with a passion for the piano – if not for each other. Both come from broken homes, they find solace in their geekiness manifest in their shared passion for the piano, although not the same composers!

Cleverly the writer, Samuel Adamson, gives us scenes from the past and the future that reveal to us how Hattie and James’ lives are interwoven, untangled and reimagined. We see them at different times in their lives: as obnoxious teenagers, as successful musicians and less so, as children guided by the care of concert pianist Elke Schultz.

At the heart of each scene is a grand piano – played expertly, for the two leads, by Berrak Dyer. Her technique helps us believe that Hattie and James have the skills to play and compose – even though they never pretend to play! The piano is expertly manoeuvred by a stage revolve. Each movement clearly depicts a different scene, whilst the crew change the rest of the set with an expertise that should be commended.

Each scene played expertly by Sophie and Charles gives us a little more. In the hands of these seasoned actors, if they say I’m six, I’m seventeen or even eighty, somehow, we believe them! Slowly, scene by scene, the two compose a piece that reveals to us how life worked out for them both.

And there is the issue for me. The story telling feels slow. It’s non-linear and so it feels like the writer is adding a bit to the picture here and a bit there, and we have to wait for the paint to dry before the next bit can be added next to it. By the end of the evening it feels like you’ve witnessed excellent composition, great performances and some excellent writing but the speed of waiting for the final reveal left me wondering if I cared.

This show was reviewed at the Kiln Theatre, London where it runs until the 18th May 2024.  Tickets available here: THE BALLAD OF HATTIE AND JAMES | Kiln Theatre

Review written by Paul Wood


Photo credit: Mark Senior

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