Review: Holst – The Music In The Spheres, Jack Studio Theatre

Arrows & Traps return to live performance in customary ambitious style with Holst – The Music In The Spheres at the Brockley Jack

“Noise is all relative”

It should come as little surprise that Arrows & Traps Theatre’s return to live performance takes the form of an ambitious and inventive repertory season. Written and directed by Ross McGregor, The Dyer’s Hand presents two interlinking plays aiming to once again do what the company does so well, in excavating fascinating stories from the unsung corners of our history books.

First up is Holst – The Music In The Spheres which looks at the life of Gustav (von) Holst, the English composer best known for the orchestral suite The Planets and one of the most timeless, if repurposed, melodies in Jupiter. From a strict Victorian childhood blighted by illness through his travails as a jobbing musician and teacher, McGregor illuminates Holst’s struggle to pursue his almighty artistic vision.

The play uses the relationship between Holst and one of his pupils – Cecilia Payne, the focus of the rep season’s second play – at St Paul’s Girls’ School as its crux. A lifelong devotee of the power of education, particularly where music was concerned, Holst nurtures the precociously scientific mind of Payne, if not quite making a musician out of her then broadening her intellectual perspective – it’s a tenderly beautiful connection that is drawn here in the nicely detailed set from Odin Corie, lit so well by Jonathan Simpson.

Flashback scenes take us through crucial points in Holst’s biography (Corie’s set allowing this in the most elegant way) but the most successful moments come in the most theatrically expressed, aligning so perfectly with the play’s musings about the purpose of art. Some scenes are given over to visual and musical language – forceful but fluid movement evokes childhood abuse, a silent movie-esque montage captures the heady days of courtship to his eventual wife Isobel, floods of emotion wash over Holst as he conducts his masterpiece at the play’s end. Accompanied by orchestral swells, these scenes allow us just to feel, giving permission to find that transformative magic of truly connecting with great art.  

Toby Wynn-Davies is superb as Holst, wisely choosing not to overplay the differences in age in scenes of his youth but rather letting us see how we carry so much emotional scarring with us through life. And Laurel Marks pairs beautifully with him as Payne, quietly blossoming under his tutelage and rightly frustrated at the limitations society places on her as a young woman. The surrounding ensemble multi-role most effectively too, with Edward Spence’s outrageously charismatic Ralph Vaughan-Williams a particular standout.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Davor @TheOcularCreative
Holst – The Music In The Spheres is booking at the Jack Studio in rep with Payne – The Stars Are Fire until 19th February

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