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Review: The Ballad of Hattie & James (Kiln Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite




Some people are permanent fixtures in our lives, while some are with us for a short but eventful time… perhaps a third subset is those who do both, re-entering throughout our lives at key moments. So goes The Ballad of Hattie & James, a new decades-spanning play from Samuel Adamson playing at London’s Kiln Theatre.


Like Hamilton and Burr with only slightly less musicality, audacious Hattie and restrained James continually reunite, from their first meeting at a multi-school musical rehearsal to pivotal moments in their final years. Both attracted chiefly, if not entirely, to the same sex, there is still a romanticism to their instant connection – two such different people, two dear friends who refer to practising the piano as making love with one another (though in much cruder terms) whose friendship eventually gives way to tragedy and to the harsh words of broken hearts.

Sophie Thompson and Charles Edwards have a marvellous chemistry, and before the mentions of wives and husbands enter the mix, it’s easy to be excited by the love story we seem at first to be sat down for. Playing their roles from childhood to old age, bouncing through history as the script requires, both Edwards and Thompson bring a build-up of knowledge and of struggle to the characters as the decades tick by. What appears at first to be a stiltedness to James allows Edwards to really let loose when deeply felt, less constrained emotion is called for, while Thompson’s manic Hattie seems as though there’s nothing more for her to give, allowing for glorious surprises as her portrayal continues to deepen.


Adamson has written a strong script with characters who are easy both to fall in love with and to be completely frustrated by. The story itself is timeless, which admittedly is another way of calling it very familiar – the pair’s bickering becomes a full-on fight when only one is selected for their dream music school, and a loss close to them both derails their relationship entirely, but life eventually finds ways to reconnect them, and their long-standing affection for one another proves to have never really dissipated. Conversations, both argumentative and affectionate, often loop back to music, but this feels authentic to these characters, one of whom has grown up with music through passion, and the other through a certain degree of parental pushing. Neither plays more than a handful of notes for themselves, with an onstage accompanist providing their virtuoso playing, and director Richard Twyman has opted to have them barely even pretend to do so – James will place his hands on the pianist’s shoulders to suggest her being an extension of him, while Sophie will dance around the stage in a literalisation of how whimsical and effortless her playing is. 

In a choice that takes some time to adapt to, Twyman has his actors behave and speak exactly the same from age 16 to age 80, perhaps reinforcing how little has truly changed about either character by the end of their lives. This is particularly noticeable with Thompson, who gives the more outwardly expressive performance and as such is the more confusing actor to see acting as a teenager – still, the effect largely works, and once I’d settled into the flow of things, I scarcely noticed at all that teenage Hattie and elderly Hattie happened to have strikingly similar postures.


Playing almost every other role, aside from two small parts played by child actors Aliva Mihayo and Luna Valentine, Suzette Llewellyn is given only so much time for a handful of throwaway characters but is particularly commanding as Hattie’s wife Bo. Imbuing in Bo a warmth born of genuine love, and a sternness stemming from a fierce desire to protect her spouse, Llewellyn leaves her mark on a story largely dominated by its leading duo. Rounding out the small company is onstage pianist Berrak Dyer, not acting on stage but deeply important to the music-driven storytelling. Playing both classical compositions and originals from Nicola T. Chang and David Shrubsole, the gifted musician pours genuine emotion into the accompaniment, the music becoming a character all its own under her delicate, graceful guidance.

Jon Bausor’s set is simple and insular, a revolve bringing pianos and items of furniture to the forefront and away again as requires, while a pane of glass hands towards the back of the stage, at one point becoming a literal window but primary suggesting a sort of unspoken division – perhaps between characters, perhaps between people and music, or perhaps some deeper metaphor I missed entirely. Diagonal walls frame the scenes on either side, reinforcing the smallness and intimacy of both the space and of the story, and Dan Light’s underused video design is projected onto the hanging glass, while the sparseness of the walls helps bring attention to Simisola Majekodunmi’s subtle lighting choices.


This being a play driven so firmly by its music, both sound design, from Pete Malkin, and musical direction, from co-composer David Shrubsole, need to be excellent. Thankfully, both are incredibly successful – music is a complement to scenes rather than overwhelming them, and the balance between us hearing the dialogue and catching every note of the music is just right. Emotion is guided by the piano work, rather than having Dyer’s accompaniment directed by what everyone else is doing – the music truly is the central character much of the time, and everyone involved has the appropriate reverence for it.


Potentially difficult for some to follow and with some baffling choices in its final scenes, The Ballad of Hattie & James provides two strong character studies and makes some headway into exploring the kind of relationship that never really leaves us, even when the people themselves are absent for long stretches of our lives. With strong central acting a gorgeous musicianship, this is a strong premiere for a show with plenty of heart, even if for some it may hit a few too many flat notes.


The Ballad of Hattie & James plays at The Kiln Theatre until May 18th



Photos by Mark Senior



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