Theatre Review: Key Change – Vulnerable Virtuosity, Or Staving Off Melancholy

February 5, 2023




Key Change – My Favourite Pianists / Created by Jonathan Roxmouth / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


Pianist, singer, actor and all-round consummate entertainer Jonathan Roxmouth returns to his favourite spot – seated at a keyboard – to celebrate the long list of artists who inspired him to take up that position in the first place. Roxmouth has presented other piano-and-artist-focused shows, with famous personalities under his spotlight in the past including Liberace, Jerry Lee Lewis and Stephen Sondheim. But this piece casts a far wider net, showcasing the work of everyone from Beethoven to Tim Minchin via Richard Clayderman (hey, anyone who’s learned the piano in the last 40 years has played his stuff) and Freddie Mercury, who is most often thought of as a vocalist, not a pianist.

That scope is representative of the generosity evident in every layer of Key Change. It’s essentially a solo show, but there is an excellent backing band who add colour and continuity. Roxmouth could have got away with two costume changes, but there is a glittering third option, just because. Medleys need only comprise a handful of tunes, but the hugely entertaining ‘Love’ mash-up in the second half feels like it has a couple of dozen!

The area in which there is the most notable benevolence, though – when comparing this show to what has come before – is in Roxmouth’s vulnerability. His stage persona is big, brash and confident, and there’s no change here in that regard. But to that swagger he adds personal anecdotes about his family and childhood, and insights into what it was in the compositional and instrumental skills of the pianists he pays tribute to that inspired him to choose paths that might not have been considered cool or even viable.

It feels like a step out of a comfort zone, but there’s no trace of uneasiness on stage, with Roxmouth seeming cheerful throughout, and indulging in some pleasingly (provided you’re not the target) acerbic improvised banter with members of the audience. Note: everyone he focuses on deserves to squirm a bit, particularly one lady who is openly filming the whole show on her phone…

Amid all the complexity, brim-full arrangements and virtuosity, there are moments of quiet poignancy. A version of Queen’s Love Of My Life includes clever, subtle additions to its usual piano line to go with lyrics that, by Roxmouth’s admission, landed powerfully the first time he heard the song.

Key Change can be enjoyed superficially as a collection of excellent music, expertly played, but there is considerably more on offer between the notes – wit, careful curation and frankness included.