Review: The Ballad of Hattie and James, Kiln Theatre

Even with Sophie Thompson and Charles Edwards onboard, The Ballad of Hattie and James never quite finds the right key at the Kiln Theatre

“Oh God, it’s very out of tune”

With Sophie Thompson and Charles Edward leading the cast, I can’t deny that my expectations for The Ballad of Hattie and James shifted into another gear, however rightly or wrongly. And perhaps with crushing inevitability, I struggled to ever really engage with Samuel Adamson’s new play for the Kiln Theatre as it puts the decades-long relationship between its titular characters through the kaleidoscope and under the microscope at the same time.

Both musical prodigies, Hattie and James are put together as teenagers at a Benjamin Britten concert and a spiky chemistry is soon apparent, a friendship developing but soon torn asunder by tragedy. As we zip in and between multiple decades, we trace the ebbs and flows and more ebbs between them, taking in grief, misogyny, homophobia, jealousy, alcoholism, depression and more besides, multitudinous topics across this fractured timeline.

With such tricksiness inherent in its storytelling, Richard Twyman’s production has to work extremely hard to make all these pieces fit together. For me, I’m not sure it ever really got there. Such a fractious partnership may offer moments of dramatic power to pop off the stage (and Thompson seizes every chance to do just that) but it is also hard to engage with it. We’re asked to believe that this is a friendship for the ages but it is not abundantly clear that it is worth it, the emotional beats keep getting missed as it explicably endures.

The use of an onstage pianist provides musical heft through Nicola T Chang and David Shrubshole’s score but I wasn’t a fan of using them to cover both Thompson and Edwards miming their own playing – in a play so much about the power of music and the personal cost of artistic talent, it felt an artifical note. Jon Bausor’s turntable set looks elegant though and Suzette Llewellyn works hard in multi-roling as everyone else in Hattie and James’ lives – this just never hit the right chord for me.

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