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The Pianist

Based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman
Manchester International Festival
1830 Warehouse at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

The Pianist

An actor telling stories to an audience accompanied by a musician in an attic room of an old warehouse sounds like a typical Edinburgh Fringe small-scale show. However when the team consists of well-known actor Peter Guinness, concert pianist and artistic director of the Festival de St Riquier in France Mikhail Rudy and former artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith Neil Bartlett with a text from the same source as an acclaimed film by Roman Polanski, it becomes something that tempts the first-string critics of the national dailies out of London to the rainy north.

The experience of this production begins long before entering the performance space. The car park is an old cobbled street (sadly not at wartime prices, but £4 isn't unreasonable for the centre of Manchester) from where you walk across the old railway tracks and sit in the bar, which is the old partially-covered station platform, listening to loud, ghostly recorded sounds of steam trains. The audience is then led across a footbridge over the railway tracks through a loading door into a haze-filled room with bright lights and dark corners, up some stairs (there is also a lift) and into a small, square room with wooden floor, walls, ceiling and beams, seats on all four sides and a grand piano in the centre.

The text consists of extracts from the wartime memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who worked as a pianist for Warsaw radio until the Nazi occupation, spoken in the rich but melancholy tones of actor Peter Guinness. Szpilman saw his city turned into a ghetto and his family taken away on trains, never to return, but he somehow managed to survive in hiding in the city until it was liberated by the Russians in 1945. Punctuating the performance at regular intervals are pieces of music written by Chopin and by Szpilman himself, played by Mikhail Rudy who created the idea for the show and whose own family was constantly on the move when he was a child to escape persecution by Stalin. The music is not intended to provide any narrative, but it often does capture and heighten the mood of the text.

The different elements do come together successfully into a very interesting piece of theatre. There are some beautifully-described if quite harrowing scenes from Szpilman's life, but it does feel as though the story has some great big gaps in it as the pieces of text are chosen more for their individual effect than their part in the plot, which makes it difficult to get a sense of overall timescale or to really understand the intensity of the suffering he must have had to endure.

The piece is lit simply but cleverly by Chris Davey, allowing Guinness to appear to wander freely around the room but to still be lit quite tightly at times. Matt Wand's sound design very subtly amplifies Guinness's voice and touches in the occasional barely-audible wind sound for dramatic effect.

On the face of it, this is very similar to many other wartime stories of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Eastern Europeans, but it is told in an engaging and fairly original way here. The music, even though some pieces are long, helps to break up the harrowing tales without destroying the mood. Overall, this is a fascinating piece of theatre that is extremely well performed by both the actor and the pianist, given a slow intensity by director Neil Bartlett.

Since this review was first published, we have learned that Matt Wand designed the sound effects as the audience walked through the building, but it was actually Tube Uk Ltd and Melvyn Coote who created the sound in the room with the performance. We are pleased to be able to give Tube UK and Melvyn Coote their proper acknowledgement and apologise for omitting them in the first place.

Running until 15th July

Reviewer: David Chadderton