The Pianist of Willesden Lane, St James Theatre, review: ‘A moving memoir’

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at St James Theatre. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at St James Theatre. Picture: Tristram Kenton - Credit: Archant

Mona Golabek’s soul-bearing production is elegaic but elegantly told, says Caroline David.

It’s exposing enough to stage your mother’s life story but to perform it as a one-woman show complete with the classical piano pieces she’s taught you is an act of true soul-bearing devotion. While the format of Mona Golabek’s memoir once-removed ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ is somewhat odd - ‘an evening with’ opening segues into the rare tale of her mother Lisa Jura’s resettlement in England courtesy of the Kindertransport – this extraordinary story is simply told and performed with impressive dignity.

Elegantly directed and adapted by Hershey Felder from Golabek’s book, a detailed, intimate picture of 1938 Viennese life is economically established: every week teenage Lisa takes the tram out of their Jewish neighborhood to have piano lessons, savouring the sights and sounds of a city she imagines peopled with artists. When Lisa’s piano professor confesses he’s no longer able to teach her because she’s Jewish, the scales fall from her eyes. By strange good fortune, her father wins one Kindertransport ticket. Recognising Lisa’s precocious talent as a pianist, her parents and sisters select her as the one to leave.

A gleaming Steinway piano sits centre stage. Large gilt-edged photo frames form the set and projections of family photos or newsreels illustrate key moments. Golabek is a concert pianist, not a professional actress, but morphs with escalating assurance into multiple characters - the spirited Mrs Cohen who runs Willesden Lane children’s hostel is the most vividly rendered.

Given the history, it’s not surprising that, at moments, the telling borders on the elegiac. Piano playing becomes a metaphor for survival with the Nazis neither wiping out the family nor their artistry. When Golabek plays the finale of Grieg’s piano concerto, she brings the show to an intensely moving conclusion with music left to express the indomitable force of humanity.

Rating: 4/5 stars