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A CurtainUp London London Review

I have multiple personality disorder. One of meís an impulsive maniac with dubious circus skills and the otherís a terminally shy agoraphobic who used to play the piano but lives in virtual silence. Oh no. Thatís you..
---- Louise
Alicia Witt as Abigail and Kelly Reilly as Louise (Bertha)
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
As the title indicates, Piano/Forte is a play which explores dichotomy, in this case in the personalities of two sisters. Terry Johnson wrote this piece with the two lead actresses in mind, British Kelly Reilly and up and coming US star Alicia Witt. It is easy to see why. Like a pair of non-identical twins, their red-haired resemblance is striking. Their characters, however, could not be more different.

The plot, like the rest of this production, is contemporary, spirited and attention-grabbing. A disgraced former Tory MP Clifford (Oliver Cotton) is getting remarried to a ditzy glamour model who he met on the set of a reality television show in the jungle. Having converted the notoriety of a shameful exit from politics into minor celebrity status, he is now "a perennial panelist, restaurant critic, visitor to Greek islands, rainforests and, hereís his trade secret, always available".

His two daughters, however, are still deeply affected by the character-deforming episode of their motherís suicide many years earlier. Abigail (Alicia Witt) is introverted, stammering, afraid to leave the house and although a talented piano player, has locked the piano and refuses to play. Louise (Kelly Reilly) possesses an extreme confidence and disregard for conventional bounds of social behaviour. Forbidden to return to the family household, she nevertheless does so and wilfully causes havoc and disruption. Having coerced her sister to let her in, her first act is to snatch an oil painting from the wall and smash it through the banister, commenting: "Symbolic gesture. Heavy-handed. Thereíll be a few more of those because THATíS THE SORT OF GIRL I AM".

The set shows a palatial country mansion, which could almost be from any period, Victorian to modern-day. The ceiling is as high as the theatre itself and its oak panels extend out into the auditorium.

Terry Johnsonís writing is a delightful blend of sharp wit and exuberant intelligence, but can also dip into the elegiac. Kelly Reillyís part especially has some amazing speeches, which are super-articulate, often scathing and frequently hilarious. As Johnson both wrote and directed this play, the execution (and in particular the cast) suit his style of writing unerringly.

The cast bring out the best in Terry Johnsonís text. No character escapes being flawed and ambivalent in some way, but all are sympathetic. The part of Louise, in the hands of a less able actor, could easily have been thoroughly obnoxious. Kelly Reilly, however, manages to convey this characterís fragility and loneliness beneath the deliberately unhinged exterior. Alicia Witt portrays great depth of emotion through her stuttering and silence, whilst her piano-playing is magnificently accomplished. Natalie Walterís Dawn, who spouts clichťs every other line, is actually rather endearing as the page three girl turned celebrity bride. Danny Webb is excellent as Ray, a wiry Australian, still emotionally crippled by his sisterís death, and in a distorted sense a surrogate father to Abi and Louise. And finally Oliver Cottonís Clifford, who speaks always as if pontificating in public, appears somewhat reasonable if culpably blind, after a hideous past.

My only criticism is that this play is slightly messy and perhaps is short of a more meaningful resolution. However, some superb writing and excellent acting and make this a very enjoyable family drama with humour.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson

Starring: Alicia Witt, Kelly Reilly
With: Danny Webb, Oliver Cotton, Natalie Walter, Nuria Benet, Sebastian Gonzalez
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Simon Corder
Sound design: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Two hours twenty-five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking at the Royal Court Theatre to 14th October 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 22nd September 2006 performance at Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Sloane Square)

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