"musical genius's breakdown, excellent drama"
by Frank Hill for remotegoat on 22/06/17

Virtuoso

Several years ago I bought an electric keyboard at a jumble sale. I fancied myself as a jazz pianist. Months later I could just sort-of pick out a couple of Everly Brothers tunes with one finger, but realised I would never be the next Count Basie - and gave up.

So I have amazing respect for people like classical pianist John Ogdon. Such a talent - but my goodness how he suffered for his art.

‘Virtuoso’ (a play by William Humble, produced by ‘Room 5064 Productions’ and performed at ‘The Three Minute Theatre’, Manchester, until June 21st) tells this troubled artist’s story.

Beginning with a video clip of the man himself, we meet up with John when he’s already achieved fame and fortune as one of the countries greatest pianists. It was clear that he had always been a man of great eccentricity, somewhat out of kilter with the Nottinghamshire background he came from - but stable enough to maintain a consistent (if pressured) career and a happy marriage and family life with two children. He also had a passion for Wimpy Bars and Agatha Christie. Then everything changed.

Suddenly he began to cancel concerts at the last minute, have huge mood swings, ranging from a desperate desire for approval to intense rages - and began to hallucinate that his dead father was speaking to him.

His father had been schizophrenic and it appeared that John was suffering from the same affliction. His wife Brenda, who fell in love with his talent but perhaps didn’t understand the man himself very well, struggled to cope. Soon both their lives began to fall apart. Hospitalisation, drugs and other treatments were utilised to cure his illness, to little effect. Not all schizophrenics, it is pointed out, can be cured. But is the diagnosis of his delusional behaviour correct? Or could their be other reasons for his apparent psychosis?

William Humble’s play is the gripping study of a man who lives for his art but doesn’t relate so well to other people. Kerry Willison-Parry gives a strong performance as Brenda Ogden, struggling to understand, clearly in love with her husband, but at times insensitive to his moods. Peter Gibson bounces around manically as John’s dead father, both helping and hindering his son, who is trying to come to terms with his condition. A strong supporting cast helps keep the whole narrative on track. But Simeon Truby as John Ogden gives a remarkably powerful, sensitive, nuanced performance that I will remember for a long time. He even managed to ‘tickle the ivories’ on occasion, giving that extra sense of authenticity to his interpretation of a great but troubled man.

Directed by Sue Jenkins, this is a production I would highly recommend.

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