The Ballad of Hattie and James review – Kiln Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Charles Edwards and Sophie Thompson. Photo by Mark Senior

Review by Carla Rudgyard

Music jumps off the page in Samuel Anderson’s evocative new play at the Kiln Theatre this spring. Shrewdly directed by Richard Twyman, this harmonious history of love, life and loss is a must-see for fans of sporadic non-linear dramas and piano lovers alike.

Throughout over 70 years, this turbulent tale follows two talented pianists throughout their rocky and unpredictable past, exploring grief, love and addiction via conversational snapshots. In many respects, it’s the classic story of a duo that were ‘never meant to be’. It has elements of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’, mixed with Joe White’s ‘Blackout Songs’ (Hampstead Theatre), as the two musicians clash in strange and intimate ways, demystifying hazy memories and desperately fumbling to grasp who they are.

Hattie is marvellously unpredictable, with her charismatic and unstable qualities perfectly portrayed by Sophie Thompson, who is audaciously headstrong and yet whimsical in her performance. James (Charles Edwards) is charmingly nerdy; “a deadly cocktail of shy, pretentious and smug”. Suzette Llewellyn is unapologetically harsh and cutting in the majority of her roles but particularly Bo; her cynicism and frankness causing short eruptions of nervous laughter from the audience. With the non linear structure and general ambiguity of the dialogue, this play has the potential for confusion were it not for the actors ability to move through time effortlessly because of their well observed and nuanced mannerisms that take the characters from the age of 6 to over 60.

Sophie Thompson. Photo by Mark Senior

But what’s really special about this show, is the musical direction (David Shrubsole) and the presence of captivating pianist Berrak Dyer, who drifts on and off the revolving stage’s two pianos (Jon Bausor) seamlessly. It’s always tedious watching an actor pretend to play an instrument, and movement director Anjali Mehra has totally sidestepped this, creating an implicit bond between the characters and pianist, who stand behind Dyer as she plays, emoting to the tune’s heart. Untethered to the piano, Hattie and James can move flirtatiously, angrily or softly beside their music, providing us with the emotional context and depth only truly talented musicians can inject into their work.

Where the plot falls a bit short, or should I say long, is the writer’s tendency to focus on lengthy discussions or reflections of dramatic events, and not the dramatic events themselves. Instead, the strengths of Adamson’s writing lie within his choppier flashbacks, and intricately placed easter eggs which make each scene a small piece of a kind of musical puzzle.

At times, this play could do with more showing and less telling, but perhaps what’s important in this performance is not what we see, but what we hear. Buried within each musical piece, and discussion about it, is a key to unlocking the true story of these strange and complex characters, and why they find themselves so inextricably connected.

The Ballad of Hattie and James is at Kiln Theatre, London until 18 May 2024