By BRUCE DENNILL
Rhapsody / Worbey And Farrell / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Steven Worbey And Kevin Farrell are a pair of Englishmen possessed of the musicianship of concert pianists and corresponding amounts of gentle humour and charm. It’s an immediately appealing combination, and one that has a good track record with South African audiences, with the long-running Handful Of Keys productions built on a similar model.
What is notably different in this production is that there is only a single piano, which the duo share – “Four hands, one piano” is one of their most enthusiastically touted marketing taglines. Playing the piano like the way these guys do requires a whole different set of skills to the more traditional everyone-gets-his-own-instrument approach. Worbey and Farrell do not simply sit side by side, one handling the bass and the other treble. Instead, playing their own hugely complex – and often very fast – arrangements, they cross hands, play in the same register together and often create situations where one will be playing the white keys and the other the sharps and flats in the same octave. It’s an approach that uses the entire keyboard, which is rare – you realise how much so when noticing how often Farrell clips the low A, right at the bottom of the piano’s frame; not something you’ll have noticed many musicians do. As they explain, the core of their playing philosophy exists in trying to use the piano as a medium to represent the efforts of all the sections of the orchestra, from the timpani to the triangle. And once they suggest the possibilities there, it’s impossible not to hear it in their playing.
The repertoire for this show includes, as you’d expect from the title, a number of rhapsodies, but inspiration is not limited to more formal classical tropes, with two of the highlights being George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue (much of which the composer apparently improvised on its debut) and Queen’s Bohemian’s Rhapsody, both pieces reworked to both add freshness and reveal just how complex the material is at its core, though those who have made the music famous have never made it look that way.
A video camera is set up above and to one side of the piano, with video being shown on a large screen behind Worbey and Farrell, allowing the audience to watch the intricate interplay of their hands on the keys. The pair, as part of their striking stage get-ups – Farrell’s crystal-encrusted Docs are particularly eye-catching – wear different shirts so that the arms on the screen can be identified.
The pair’s chemistry is lovely, and irresistible. Farrell comes off as a more genial Elton John – with grouchiness hinted at but always seen off with a sly smile – while Worbey is a gentler presence, a sort of calmer Jack Whitehall, the apparent good boy, but with a willingness to throw in a gag or two to dispel that notion.
No concessions are made to the charts of the time during which this show is being toured; there are no reworkings of contemporary pop hits to try to grab the attention of a different or younger audience. Rather, Worbey and Farrell present vital, exhilarating interpretations of material that has aged magnificently, with their superior musicianship being the major standout of the show. And while they are evidently aware of and satisfied by their expertise, there is no sense of any part of the show being about showing off. Instead, it’s two performers having a blast, and allowing some people into their space as they do so.