Review: Novecento, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

The second play in the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios showcasing their Resident Assistant Directors is Novecento by Italian Alessandro Baricco. Narrated by a single man, Tim Tooney a scruffy trumpet player who tells of a six year period in his younger days spent on a transatlantic liner called the Virginian. It is there where he strikes up a friendship with a pianist called Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novecento who, despite having been born on the ship and never having left it in his lifetime, happens to be one of the greatest jazz musicians the world never knew. This is a review of a preview performance, for better or for worse I still stand by my comments here.

Irish director Roisin McBrinn has just the one actor to work with, Mark Bonnar who plays Tooney and delivers his recollections over 100 minutes in a sustained virtuoso performance. This is a feat of great stamina as Bonnar’s intense energy never really flags at all and in certain scenes, like the account of a music duel between Novecento and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton, he is just electrifying. But to be honest, these moments were few and far between for me. The play is centred on the premise that one is fascinated by this main character whom we never meet but once it has been established that he is a sociopathic recluse, and that comes very early on, there is little other place we go with him and there’s only so much description of amazing jazz playing that one can take before it becomes crushingly repetitive.

The life of a tortured artist in itself is not enough without delving into it but Baricco’s writing is sadly uninterested in digging deeper into his upbringing that has led to this chronic fear of the unknown, the unwillingness to embrace change, maintaining instead an unearned reverence which keeps us at arm’s length from the man behind this legend which is being painted for us. By the time the absurdist twist that comes with Novecento’s arrival in heaven is played out, I was thoroughly disengaged which made for a difficult time as in the intimate space of the Trafalgar it is hard to escape the gaze of the performer.

As with Lower Ninth, there is a good transfer of the Donmar aesthetic to this space: Paul Wills’ design is visually effective making much use of chains but it is Paul Keogan’s lighting that really provides the quality touch. Olly Fox’s score is interesting but is only ever really background music, which in a play about jazz musicians just ends up being frustrating.

Sadly, my abiding memory of this show is the fact that the theatre was absolutely freezing, to the point where people were putting their coats and scarves on, and when I made the suggestion that this could be looked at for future performances to an usher as we left, I was brushed off with a sneering, dismissive ‘that has nothing to do with me darling’. I realise that she might have rather been anywhere else on a Friday night, but being rude to a customer really does leave the wrong impression and as I said, this is now my enduring association with this show.

But even with heating switched on in the theatre, I don’t think that this is a show I would ever enjoy. Despite the best efforts of Bonnar, and he really does work extremely hard, there’s no disguising the paper thin content which is stretched out here over the uninterrupted running time.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval) this was a preview so could well be tightened up before opening night
Photo: Marc Brenner

Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 20th November 

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