This is a solo show, a memorial to a mother and to a generation. It is performed not by an actor but by the American concert pianist, Mona Golabek.  Yet as a piece of theatre – 90 minutes long – its simplicity and immensity create one of the greatest impacts of the year so far.. If you don’t shed, or at least suppress, one or two tears I may have to disown you.


It is done with gentle simplicity:  great gilt frames, a grand piano and the narrator. But there is Grieg and Chopin and Beethoven, snatches of Scriabin and Debussy , thundering Rachmaninoff and gentle Bach: all woven seamlessly into the stark, terrible, courageous, touching tale of one girl’s journey through the 20th century’s greatest ordeal.


Golabek introduces herself, and thereafter speaks as her mother, Lisa Jura. The frames become portraits or scraps of monochrome newsreel as we are taken into the world of a little Viennese girl in the ‘30s, who always dressed up smart to skip down the road for her beloved piano lessons.  Until one day her Herr Professor tells her, looking at the floor, that the new law says he cannot teach a Jewish child.
Her father , a successful tailor, loses business and goes out gambling in desperation. On Kristallnacht, stripped and spat on , he manages to keep hold of a scrap of paper. A single ticket for the Kindertransport.  And Lisa is chosen, her mother adjuring her to go to England, find a professor, and “always hold on to the music”. She is fourteen years old when she takes that train to Liverpool Street. Through her next six years, and through the story as told on stage by her daughter Golabek, it is the music which sustains both her and us.
It is easy to forget, in pride at the Kindertransport rescue and the selfless heroism of parents who sent their children away, that mere safety is not all a child needs. Lisa, holding in her head forever a memory of the lost home and the lost lessons, was sent as a skivvy to a grand manor where she crept downstairs by night and pretended, hands hovering over the keys, to play the grand piano. When the silence was too much to bear and she played, the servants gathered marvelling but the head housemaid reproved her: going alone to London to protest, she found a berth in a crowded hostel – 17 girls and 14 boys, in Willesden lane. It happened to have a piano, so she stayed.
It is told often with great humour, Golabek’s voice and narrative gradually becoming more mature (the adaptation by Hershey Felder is skilful, economical and understated, wisely leaving the huge emotions to the music).   The child plays alone in the basement in the Blitz, trying to drown the bombs with Grieg.  War news on the radio and readings from other children’s letters mark the anxious days, but they are all sent to work, she sewing uniforms in a factory.  The hostel is destroyed, the young refugees scattered, adjured by Mrs Cohen always to “Show the British people your utmost respect and gratitude”.  She rebuilds, brings them back together, urges Lisa to a scholarship at the RA.  Lisa sees Dame Myra Hess at the stripped National Gallery , playing Bach so that, as the great pianist says, “through all the dark times we never forget our humanity”.
And all through it Golabek keeps returning to the piano, sometimes not for five minutes or more when Lisa is exiled from it, but always returning triumphant, to send out waves of faith and defiance and longing, the spirit of lost Vienna.   A technical note: Golabek is sometimes narrating, even as she plays, and the sound balance is, mysteriously, perfect.

She plays her Wigmore Hall debut at last, and the VE bells ring; but Auschwitz is uncovered , and more news must be borne. Yet still there is humour and hope, for the young must look forward. She  fancies a boy in the hostel, Aaron who joins the RAF; she meets her future husband ,a Free French officer, when she plays hotel piano to soldiers before D-Day.  In this bygone teenager’s story, and the music which pervades it, the veil of time rolls back.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 27 February.
Rating Five.   5 Meece Rating


Comments Off on THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE St James Theatre, SW1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

Comments are closed.