The Ballad of Hattie and James – Kiln Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Samuel Adamson

Director: Richard Twyman

Ever since the release of David Lean’s classic 1945 film, Brief Encounter, middle-aged couples, classical piano music and railway stations seem to have been linked inextricably. All three elements figure in the mix for The Ballad of Hattie and James, Samuel Adamson’s new play, which is a complex study of the adversarial platonic friendship between the title characters, spanning almost 50 years.

The play begins in 2019 with Hattie playing the piano at St Pancras International Station. This leads to a reunion with James, a professional musician whom she had first met in 1976, and we then see how their on-off relationship develops over the years. When they come together, they cannot even agree on who contacted whom to arrange the meeting, but their conflicts lead to a strange form of mutual dependency that, repeatedly, draws them back to each other.

Hattie is eccentric, wears two scarves and has ambitions to play the piano at the Royal Albert Hall, but she settles for a job in a tax office. James is gay, stuffy, wears old corduroy trousers and is passionate about Benjamin Britten. They could be the proof that opposites attract and music unites them until it tears them apart.

There are few actors more accomplished at playing eccentric characters than Sophie Thompson and, as Hattie, she is terrific, pushing the comedy as far as she can without going over the top while finding the pathos in a life of promise unfulfilled. Charles Edwards’ James, an awkward, impassioned academic, is the perfect contrast. Suzette Llewellyn provides solid support to these precisely judged performances, playing multiple roles, and Berrak Dyer plays the piano beautifully.

The product, directed by Richard Twyman, navigates through the play’s crescendos and decrescendos fairly successfully, only getting stuck in some overlong and over-analytical scenes. Adamson packs the script with details of the characters’ back stories which prove to be of little use in helping us to understand their emotions and the strange bond that holds them together.

There are minor quibbles about what is, overall, an engrossing and unusual drama, but maybe just a little fine-tuning could give it a lot more clarity.

Runs until 18 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Slightly out of tune

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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