A few years ago, I thought that I would like to learn how to play the keyboard. Armed with a free supplement that came with the weekend newspaper my parents were buying at the time called ‘Learn To Play The Keyboard’, I sat down in my bedroom, wrote the keys on with a whiteboard pen, and learnt to play quite happily with my right hand. The book then invited me to introduce my left hand to the mix, and it all went catastrophically wrong. I gave up learning soon after that, and resigned myself to tinkling away and inventing my own tunes.
Before that, however, I did learn how to play ‘A Whole New World’ from Disney’s Aladdin with one hand. But once I had rubbed the whiteboard pen off the keys, in the process of mastering this tune I often landed on the wrong note, giving a clunk to the impassioned cadence that I was otherwise emotionally invested in.
The Pianist, conceived and directed by Thomas Monckton and Sanna Silvennoinen, is sort of like that. In Thomas’ effort to arrive at his piano and play from his sheet music – a journey from dressing room to piano stool that should take no time at all – he finds obstacle after obstacle to turn the whole endeavour into a madcap, ramshackle routine that hits all the wrong keys. But boy, does he hit them well.
Failings breed brilliance in this hour long solo performance: lost sheet music prompts circus skills, lowering the height of a stool inspires a scene played out between his fingers, and difficulty getting through the curtain backdrop demands something like contortionism. Each time something breaks, or goes wrong, something incredible – and incredibly funny – happens as a result.
It helps that Thomas Monckton is just so incredibly talented, with a comic expression and physicality that is on a par with Rowan Atkinson in the Mr Bean years. We want him to succeed, and it is impossible not to fall a little bit in love with this man who tries desperately to allude to the wine sipping, tail-flicking sophistication of a concert pianist, but suffers beneath bright red socks and Einstein-esque hair.
That air of genius is finally justified when, In spite of it all, and in spite of a slightly confusing, off-kilter moment wherein the piano begins smoking and rainforest flowers appear from beneath the lid, he settles down to begin the concert. Thomas plays beautifully, and suddenly the room takes on an atmosphere quite departed from the previous haphazard, cartoon misgivings. The keys are right, the timing considered. There is not space here for comic faces (okay, maybe just one) and juggling routines.
Perhaps the fire and the flowers are a nod to a deeper understanding of where music can take us, and to frame the piano as a breeding ground for the very elements that keep us alive, alongside laughter, music and art. We might wonder why it has been worth all of the trouble of the past hour, but here we understand that the piano is this mime’s language, the realm where things fall into place and make sense for him.
It is a moving, intelligent piece that chimes from hilarity to sincerity with warmth and flair, allowing us to see the seriousness beneath the clown, as well as the clown within the pianist.