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HOLST: The Music In The Spheres

Ross McGregor
Arrows & Traps Theatre Company
Jack Studio

Toby Wynn-Davies as Gustav Holst - HOLST The Music In The Spheres Credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative
Laurel Marks as Cecilia Payne -HOLST The Music In The Spheres Credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative
Cornelia Baumann as Isobel Edward Spence as Vaughan-Williams Toby Wynn-Davies as Holst - HOLST The Music In The Spheres Credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative
Toby Wynn-Davies as Gustav Holst - HOLST The Music In The Spheres Credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative
Toby Wynn-Davies as Gustav Holst and company HOLST The Music In The Spheres Credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

Arrows & Traps Theatre Company is back doing live performance at the Jack after last year’s five-star online season, Talking Gods, filmed at the venue.

It’s a risky gambit to present a rep season in these precarious times but the company, led by artistic director Ross McGregor, is nothing if not ambitious.

The pair of plays can be seen as stand-alone works or sequentially with the first being HOLST: The Music In The Spheres. They are linked by the gripping story at the core of HOLST, the relationship between the then struggling composer and the gifted student and future astronomer Cecilia Payne, the lead character of the second play whose autobiography, The Dyer's Hand, gives the season its name.

At the start of the twentieth century, a penniless Holst has taken a second teaching job, this time at the then burgeoning St Paul’s Girls School in London’s Hammersmith, a position he kept even after he found recognition with The Planets, where the play concludes.

At St Paul's, Payne is amongst Holst's students though it is not her musical talent, which she has in spades, but her independence of mind and intellect that first forces, then bonds, them together.

On the surface, they appear polar opposites: he a perceptive and tolerant creative type and she resolute and an analytical scientist—parallel lines destined not to meet that in the hands of writer Ross McGregor form a cats cradle of connections that mutually enrich each other’s lives and deliver the best scenes in the play, thick with compelling dialogue.

Flashbacks fill in the background presenting the young Holst raised by an emotionally mute widower father and a doting aunt, his courtship of Isobel Harrison and the start of a lifelong friendship between Holst and Vaughan-Williams.

Alongside, there are some fantasy- and dream-like sequences that don’t quite hit the mark. They appear to strive for a cinematic effect that perhaps could have been more easily realised by further exploiting the already effectively-used image projection (videography by Douglas Baker). There is also one contrived and overly-maudlin episode that nearly had my toes curling.

Those (mercifully few) less successful scenes have all to be forgotten lest they get in the way of enjoying McGregor's play as a whole, his portrait of the composer and the expressed drive to create in spite of rather than because of all the influences upon you.

To the musical neophyte, the canon of Gustav Holst is largely lost in the shadow of The Planets, and its Jupiter tune cemented into popular culture as one of Britain’s best known (if controversial) hymns, "I vow to thee my country", but he also composed the setting of Rossetti's poem In The Bleak Mid-Winter, a regular at Christmas carol concerts, and restored to the classical repertoire a previously lost Purcell piece The Fairy-Queen. And much more besides.

That Holst was able to amass such a catalogue of work whilst holding down two or more teaching posts, and in the face of various debilitating health conditions, is testament to his artistic drive—and to his steadfast wife, Isobel, rendered charmingly practical and adoring by Cornelia Baumann.

We also see the guiding hand of an affirming and well-connected Ralph Vaughan-Williams on Holst's life and work; here the devoted and cheekily roguish friend is portrayed by Edward Spence in strong support.

Toby Wynn-Davies gives a fine performance as the gentle Holst compelled to compose in his own style whilst carrying the musical legacy of his forefathers, and Laurel Marks's performance as Cecilia Payne is thoughtful and nuanced, growing from sad, contrary adolescent to reflective young woman, moulded by Holst's mentoring.

The relationship between Wynn-Davies's Holst and Marks's Payne rings true; they are a constellation of two presenting the pattern of two minds meeting, something well worth seeing.

PAYNE: The Stars Are Fire opens at the Jack Studio on 25 January with the performance schedule for the rep season available online. The Talking Gods season is available online, free and on demand.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti