Review: Novecento – Trafalagar Studios 2 ****

A central theme, developed, extrapolated, teased, and drawn out; jazz music is like taking a melody for a walk and allowing it to lead you wherever it wants.

So too, Novecento, the second production in the Donmar’s New Directors Season at the Traflagar Studios, takes the audience for a walk with a character, leading us around one man’s life, the epicly named Danny Boodmann TD Lemon Novecento, who played “music that didn’t exist” on board the Virginia cruise liner.

In Róisín McBrinn’s exquisitely detailed production, Mark Bonnar shambles around the stage, personifying the jazz era and delivering a virtuoso performance in this one man monologue. He dazzles, trembles and compels as he transforms into a dozen or so characters who impact upon Novecento’s life. Like the best jazz music, it is a performance that is layered and complex with swelling climaxes and meditative reflections, which allows Bonnar to deliver a note perfect recital and holds the audience enthralled for almost ninety minutes. The effectiveness of Bonnar’s performance is to suggest that his own, untold, story is just as interesting and intriguing as the story of Novecento. As Tim Tooley, a jazz trumpeter, and Novecento’s best friend, Bonnar’s performance hints at the tragedies of his own life, as much as he recounts the highlights of Novecento’s.

this production is nigh on perfect. It has charm, a compelling story, and a superlative central performance

Designer Paul Willis has created a steely set, punched with rivets, which is both suggestive of the Virginia, on which Novecento lived his entire life, and redolent of the prison which ultimately the story suggests. Composer Olly Fox creates an evocative soundscape which captures the mythical music without overpowering the performance.

The script, by Alessandro Baricco, translated by Ann Goldstein, is poetic and beautiful and McBrinn exploits it for every last ounce of theatricality, but ultimately this feels like a radio play unnecessarily staged. The final few minutes offer a eulogy which is too verbose and lyrical to elict any affection from the audience. It transforms the piece from an elegant jazz riff to a plodding finale. A shame, as this production is, in every other respect, nigh on perfect. It has charm, a compelling story, and a superlative central performance.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 20th November
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