The ever inventive Arrows and Traps company have come up with two new plays by its artistic director Ross McGregor of which this one The Music in the Spheres is about the composer Gustav Holst opens this repertory season at the Brockley Jack. The second play is The Stars Are Fire about the astrophysicist Cecilia Payne who was one of his pupils at St Paul’s Girls School and was in this version of her life much influenced by him. That one must wait. The Music in the Spheres has, as one expects from McGregor, who also directs, moments of marvellous visual inspiration and he and the six strong cast create a world it filled with crowds of people and striking imagery. It also has a very powerful performance by Toby Wynn-Davis as Hoslt at its heart.
It would be wrong to say he carries the show if that were to diminish the performances of the others members of the cast but it does really rest on his shoulders. Holst longed to be a composer, his father, with whom he had a difficult relationhip wanted him to be a performer. But his health prevented him becoming a pianist – he played the trombone and earned a living of sorts in orchestras for travelling shows, while reluctantly taking up teaching. For years he could not earn a living from his own music and during the First World War as apparently a German – his grandfather had added the prefix von to his name – found it even more difficult especially as he was British in every respect. He eventually dropped the suffix.
His Planets suite that brought him a degree of fame – it did not last and he remained to the end of his days a teacher although one of great distinction.
McGregor’s play is a splendid affair but also a splendid mess lurching back and forwards in time and embarking on what seems like a side track as it starts suddenly to focus on Payne instead. The confusion is compounded.
The performances rescue it from disaster as does Holst’s music and the moments of inspired stage craft – a table, a couple of umbrellas and the cast and suddenly Holst and his devoted wife are riding in a carriage on holiday, or when at a moment of crisis he is surrounded by the cast with sheets of music at the end of almost invisible flexible rods which flutter around him creating a deeply affecting image of his state of mind.
Maybe writers should not direct their own work because the time shifts in what was actually a rather mundane life do not help. However better a splendid mess, something which aspires, even if it does not quite achieve its aspirations, than a biographical trudge through chronological facts. Today he Holst is not the best remembered composer of his day – his friend Ralph Vaughan-Williams, who encouraged him to keep composing, is a far larger figure – but the Planets suite remains one of those unforgettable pieces of music.
Just what McGregor makes of Payne’s life – she went to Cambridge, studied chemistry, then went to America where she became a hugely distinguished astronomer and astrophysicist.But that is one still to be seen.
Cornelia Baumann: Isobel Harrison & Mary Thorley-Stone.
Lucy Ioannou: Benigna Holst & Frances Gray.
Laurel Marks: Cecilia Payne.
Edward Spence: ralph Vaughan-Williams/
Alex Stevens: Adolph Holst, Fritz Hart & Sydney Bressey.
Toby Wynn-Davies: Gustav Holst.
Director: Ross McGregor.
Set & costume Design: Odin Corie.
Lighting Design: Jonathan Simpson.
Sound Design: kristina Kailin.
Videography: Douglas Baker.
Vocal Coach: Sarah Case.
Movement Direction: Will Pinchin.
Pianist: Richard Baker.