The Pianist of Willesden Lane: A Not Inconsiderable One-Woman Tour de Force

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various composers, The Pianist of Willesden Lane: St. James’s Theatre, London, 22.1.2016. (CS)

Mona Gobalek as Lisa Jura
Mona Golabek as Lisa Jura in The Pianist of Willesden Lane (c) Alastair Muir


Lisa Jura – Mona Golabek


Adaptation/Direction – Hershey Felder
Design – Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay
Lighting design – Christopher Rynne and Jason Bieber
Costume design – Jaclyn Maduff
Sound design – Erik Carstensen
Projection design – Andrew Wilder

Performing a warhorse piano concerto, presenting a demanding recital, fronting a one-woman show: for most of us, undertaking just one of these artistic endeavours would be a satisfying achievement, but in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, currently showing at the St James’s Theatre, Mona Golabek does all three – and, at the same time, takes on the considerable challenge of embodying and relating her mother’s life story.

Golabek, a formidably talented concert pianist, is the daughter of Lisa Jura whose tale was told in Golabek’s book (co-authored with Lee Cohen), The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport.  This memoir of ‘music, love and survival’ follows Jura’s journey from aspiring young pianist in Vienna, to Kindertransport refugee, to jobbing musician during the London Blitz, and, finally, to some sort of peace, when she learns that the sisters she left behind have survived the atrocities of the Holocaust and Jura herself finds love and marries Michel Golabek.

When the Second World War cut off all communication with Europe, music was Jura’s only means of sustaining a connection to her lost childhood and her family in Vienna.  So, it is fitting that a gleaming Steinway dominates the stage, from which Golabek articulates her mother’s life-narrative.  Behind, oval and square picture frames loom: they serve as a gallery of family portraits, as cinematic screens which playback pivotal historic moments, and they also suggest huge mirrors, into which Jura, and Golabek, may gaze to find their true selves.  The simplicity of set is a real strength as it allows the music room to ‘speak’ without the intrusion of visual distraction, but with subtle elucidation and enhancement.  The time/age dynamics present difficulties though, given that there is a large age difference between Golabek now and her adolescent mother as she was then, and I did not think that the rather frumpy black outfit and ugly auburn wig that Golabek sported were particularly helpful in straddling the gap.

There is no doubting Golabek’s technical proficiency as a pianist; from Bach to Debussy, Grieg to Gershwin, she impresses with her accuracy and musicality – not least because she often accompanies her own playing with spoken narrative and reflection.  The amplification is subtly done, and there were only a few occasions where the complexity and dynamic of the musical material threatened to overpower and obscure the spoken voice.

As an actor, though, Golabek – inevitably, and forgivably – has her limitations.  After her prefatory introduction, the pace and tension of her delivery of her mother’s autobiography offer little variation.  She wanders between piano stool, fore-stage, and the angled steps right and left, at times in reverie, elsewhere enlivened by reflection.  But, it’s no easy task to embody a fourteen-year-old girl’s experiences, so far removed from her own, and Golabek has only a narrow range of gestures and approaches to call upon.  That said, she captures her mother’s ‘lulling’ voice: her initial naïve and infectious optimism, her wide-eyed intensity, her combination of fear of the unknown and embrace of adventure, her openness, her resourcefulness.  Most importantly, she successfully and movingly confirms her mother’s maxim – repeated impressed upon Golabek and her sister Renee during piano lessons, when technical instruction mingled with autobiographical ruminations and inspiring encouragement – that ‘each piece of music tells a story’.

Moreover, Golabek introduces us to a range of convincing, colourful characters.  We meet bohemian artists in the coffee houses of Vienna; the Viennese piano teacher who, forbidden to teach Jewish pupils, can offer no consolation other than his own frailty: ‘I’m not a brave man.’  Golabek’s grandmother’s despairing voice – how will her husband who, his tailoring busing bankrupted by the Nazi’s persecutory policies, has incredibly won a single prized Kindertransport ticket, choose which of his children is to be offered the hope of freedom and a future in London? – challenges us with a dilemma that we would rather not contemplate.  Conversely, we laugh at Mrs Cohen, the proprietor of a communal house for children of the Kindertransport on Willesden Lane, who, with wide open arms and deferential bow, welcomes the young Jura with the unintentionally insensitive invitation to ‘treat this house as if it were your own’.  If Golabek’s means of impersonation are limited to a lowering of the voice and a narrowing of the eyes, she does at least credibly evoke a raw, child’s-eye perspective of a strange, unstable world.

There’s always the risk that tales such as Jura’s can become schmaltzy and saccharine in the re-telling, blanched of their darkness and sweetened with the benefit of distance.  Here, the music ensures that the pathos and poignancy are not lost or overpowered by sentimentality.  And, chiefly, it is the directness and intensity of Golabek’s playing that keep mawkishness at bay.  The Romantic concentration of Grieg’s A Minor Piano Concerto, so beloved by the adolescent Jura who dreams of her debut at Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall, are the backbone of the performance: a means of introducing us to Jura’s passionate inner life and hopes, a ‘sound-track’ to the desperate drama of the Blitz bombings in London (the slick synchronisation of spoken word, on-stage performance, recorded orchestral accompaniment, and historical film footage was impressive), and finally the Afterword or Coda: the last section of the Concerto’s final movement, Andante maestoso, encapsulates the entire gamut of Jura’s emotional journey.  And, in its move to the major tonality, it also suggests hope and reconciliation.

This rolling musical backdrop – which scarcely ceases throughout the performance – is as varied as it is communicative; and, the quieter moments are as moving as the impassioned.  Painful images of emaciated and despairing Jews, desperate to send their children to freedom via the Kindertransport, were brought into focus by the crystalline illumination of Debussy’s Clair du lune.  The staccato counterpoint of Bach’s Bb Major Partita BWV 825, rendered with airy vigour, makes Jura’s experience as a wartime textile factory employee immediate and compelling.  A Chopin Nocturne, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band’ punctuate the tale and convey the expressive significance of episodes in Jura’s harrowing adolescence more powerfully than words could ever do.

At the close, we are left with the Jura’s mother’s parting words to her daughter in 1938, ‘hold on to the music’, ringing powerfully and portentously in our ears.  Those piano classics may never be quite the same again.

Claire Seymour

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