When asked why he hires female singers for his songs, middle-aged musician Bernard says casually, “because they’re cheaper.”
The Old Vic audience laughs darkly and knowingly at this nonchalant admission that women are treated badly in the music industry. In the age of the gender pay gap and #MeToo, that comment strikes a particularly loud note.
But Bernard doesn’t laugh or seem to think there’s anything wrong with the fact that women are cheaper. To him it seems perfectly normal and if it is bad, it isn’t really his problem. This sets the tone for Joe Penhall’s play about former big rock star Bernard (Ben Chaplin) who has teamed up with young singer-songwriter Cat to make a record. The duo end up in a war over who really wrote the hit song they produced, who deserves the credit.
Chaplin is gripping and very funny as a controlling ego-maniac who gets off on making Cat suffer but is also shimmering with rock-star charisma. It’s a testament to how well the play is written – and acted- because while Bernard’s awful, he’s also charming enough that he never repels the audience entirely, you want more of Bernard because despite being a nightmarish narcissist, he’s also alluring. He gets away with it just as so many real rock stars always have. Seána Kerslake brims with fury and doubt as young musician Cat, simultaneously dazzled by Bernard and wishing he was dead for taking advantage of her inexperience and passion.
The play is about the music industry but it’s more about women and men, the systematic reasons that females get a bad deal so much of the time, and the myth of the artistic genius.
For much of the play, Cat and Bernard talk to their psychotherapists and lawyers, having hugely entertaining and maddening conversations about how and why things have gone so wrong. Neil Stuke is brilliant as Bernard’s slippery but exasperated lawyer, spitting with frustration as his client destroys everything gleefully and purposefully, a child trampling on a sandcastle.
Mood Music never lectures or feels too earnest. It’s a witty, realistic look at creativity and commercialism – and how the clash between them can lead to carnage.
Mood Music is at the Old Vic, London, until 16 June