The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Pianist of Willesden Lane

Mona Globeck in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Photo by Sara Krulwich

St James Theatre has staged a sensitive and powerful production of a show that might potentially have been a risk for the main house – a one-woman show featuring not an actress or singer, but a concert pianist with a story to tell – but what a story. 

Mona Golabek presents the extraordinary life of her mother Lisa Jura from the age of 14 in 1930’s Vienna, through the turbulent years of World War 11.  An entrancing story of a series of goodbye’s, sacrifice and disappointments, love, and danger, set to the music that kept Lisa going through that tense and destructive war.

The stage is set simply and strikingly with a grand piano, a couple of steps for layering and all framed in a gilt picture frame containing 3 smaller frames, through which appear paintings, photographs or moving newsreel footage from the time. After introducing herself, Golabek steps to the piano, and whilst playing narrates the story as her mother,with the occasional characterisation of other people who come into her life.

Lisa, like her own daughter, is also the daughter of a concert pianist mother and a Jewish tailor in Vienna in the 1920s, a time of elegant café society and when classical music was much elevated. Taught by her mother and a wonderful teacher in the music school, Lisa is herself an exceptionally gifted young pianist, and dreams of making her concert debut at the Vienna Musikverein.

But, as she reaches her 14th birthday in 1938, the Friday lesson she lives for is aborted. After Lisa is grudgingly allowed access by the German soldier with the rifle at the front door, her much beloved instructor tells her it is now forbidden for him to teach Jewish students, and that it is simply too dangerous for them to continue. He confirms her rare gift and bids her goodbye.

Her father turns to gambling after his business suffers, and after a terrifying encounter with Nazi thugs on the night of riots, he presents his winnings – a single ticket on the Kindertransport, a program to relocate Jewish children to the relative safety of England. The family has three daughters, yet only one can go. The family chooses Lisa, with her mother imploring her to keep playing the piano, assuring her that she will be with her with every note.

What follows is a tale of kindness, struggle and huge uncertainty for the young girl, in a well-evoked wartime London where she is placed with a family running a hostel overcrowded with other children from the Kinder trains. Lisa struggles to maintain contact, but eventually loses touch with her family in Europe, and yet is able to continue playing and keeps alive her dream of making her concert debut with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.

As her mother had taught her, “Every piece of music tells a story”, and each gloriously played rendition in this piece does the same. The music featuring works from Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin, both passionately and delicately played by Golabeck, is more than simply illustrative. Director Hershey Felder, who adapted Golabek’s book for stage, employs Grieg’s concerto to guide the piece from beginning to end, each movement setting scenes in her life from the tensions in Vienna, the terrors of the Blitz and finally, her moment of bitter-sweet triumph.

The classical repertoire of a student of the time, together with popular pieces of the day e.g. These Foolish Things shape the show as a whole and bring to life certain scenes, such as the swanky club for soldiers she gets a job in, where romance is in the air, and the repetitive, loud conditions of the sewing factory where she initially earns her keep.

Golabeck, not being an actress, tells the story simply and unaffectedly, and with such personal investment, is all the more powerful for that. It is also particularly moving to see her as the embodiment of the next generation of daughters taught to play so wonderfully by their mothers before them.

There was not one person in the audience not affected and stunned by this gloriously played and beautifully produced piece.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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About Fiona Jane Weston

I am Fiona-Jane Weston and as well as being a performer myself (see website), I write reviews of and features on shows, mainly on the London cabaret and theatre scene. I have worked in theatre for many years, but decided to embark on a new direction in cabaret in 2009, when I produced 20th Century Woman: The Compact Cabaret. Not wanting to neglect my love of spoken word, particularly drama and verse, I made the conscious decision to include these elements in the programme, as well as wonderful songs, to tell the story of women's changing status and preoccupations throughout the 20th Century and up to now. I was invited to audition for the renowned Cabaret Conference at Yale, run by the late legendary Erv Raible, and that was thrilled to be one of only 26 accepted that year, where I was taught by the masters of the genre. Amanda McBroom (composer of the Bette Middler hit "The Rose" and the poignant "Errol Flynn"), Laurel Massé, original member of Manhattan Transfer, Sally Mayes, Tony Award nominees Sharon McNight and Tovah Feldshuh, and New York cabaret veteran Julie Wilson were all on the faculty. We were also treated to the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, Hubert Tex Arnold and the now late Paul Trueblood. With the benefit of their insightful teaching and great encouragement, I took my show to The Duplex in New York, where I was delighted with the response. Since then, I have produced Loving London: The Capital Cabaret, using the same format of songs, poetry and drama, in various London venues, including Leicester Square Theatre and The Crazy Coqs. 2014, the centenary of World War 1, saw the launch of Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret to a sellout house at St. James Theatre, London, garnering great notices, including from The Times and Musical Theatre Review. I have since been touring the show to Belgium and throughout the UK. I hope these reviews and interviews entertain and educate at the same time, and if please do leave comments in the box. It's great to engage in a conversation about the Arts. Fiona-Jane Weston
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