St James Theatre, London (*****)
As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, tales by survivors may have been told many times but I can’t remember it ever being told with such bravura, imagination and skill.
Mona Golabek, a superb concert pianist in her own right, is following in the footsteps of her mother, Lisa Jura, a prodigiously talented young Viennese pianist whose musical education was cut short by the arrival of the Nazis in Vienna.
It is Lisa’s story she tells – based on the book Mona wrote from her mother’s account – mirroring in many respects the experiences of other Jewish children who arrived in this country under the Kindertransport programme and were fostered – for Lisa at 243 Willesden Lane.
Lisa’s story is exceptional though in the major role music played in helping her survive the darkest of experiences.
Lisa was one of three daughters. Those early days in 1938 when the persecution of the Jews started to become clear and the family had to decide which daughter would go on the Kindertransport make agonising viewing as Golabek reconstructs her soon to be destroyed family surroundings.
But what is even more remarkable is director Hershey Felder’s integration of video clips and photos whilst highlighting Golabek’s story-telling and musical skills, dovetailing the latter to piercing effect with synchronised orchestral backings.
As you watch and listen, here, under Golabek’s fingers and in her mother’s words, the full weight of European culture suddenly comes into focus emphasised in excerpts from European classics – Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and notably Greig.
It is Greig’s Piano Concerto that summons us into the dying Viennese world, that Golabek plays as the video clip once again shows Jews being rounded up and humiliated and that brings the show to its rousing finale as Lisa Jura makes her concert debut.
Adhering steadfastly to her mother’s dictum to `hold on to the music’, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a homage to its life-giving power, to Jura’s indomitable spirit – and considerable chutzpah – and movingly to those in England (often Quakers) who opened their doors to the thousands of refugee children – a timely reminder of humanity’s finer side in our once again troubled times.
Never did 90 minutes pass so quickly or intensely.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs at St James Theatre to Feb 27, 2016
First published in Reviewsgate, Jan 2016 and slightly amended here.