The difficult second album syndrome must be a kind of purgatory to musicians. Joe Penhall's new play deals with a little of that purgatory, offering us a mid-point between two albums being made by an older, established male artist and a young, newly discovered female talent. It's not just a lack of inspiration or the pressure of success that are stifling these two, however, Penhall dives deep into the complicated politics of power, sex, creativity, ownership, money and exploitation in the music industry. Let's just say that it is certainly a play for our times.
Ben Chaplin's Bernard is an ageing, but hugely successful producer and writer and seeks out young singers to work with in the studio. Seána Kerslake's Cat is the aspiring musician he's found, and we meet the two of them surrounded by lawyers and psychoanalysts, where she's upset that he's calling her songs his own and he doesn't understand why she thinks the songs are hers.
The piece is a tug of war, a push and pull over creative ownership. But there's something much, much darker at play here too. Her youth, her naivety, her gender, means Cat is an easy person for Bernard to manipulate. Years of flattery have turned Bernard into a kind of sociopathic egoist who believes entirely and completely in himself. Some of his lines about his God-like status and infinite knowledge about music are eye watering: 'I am the music', he explains audaciously of his role at one point. Cat reveals to her lawyers how on tour a cocktail of prescription drugs and depression led to a situation where she is used and moved from one place to the other like a shop window doll. She is exploited not just creatively but physically too.
Roger Michell directs the piece with a forest of microphones hanging from the ceiling on Hildegard Bechtler's set. He has all parties – Bernard, Cat, their psychoanalysts, her lawyer and the head of the record label – all there pretty much all of the time. The action is entirely fluid, with Bernard and Cat speaking as if in analyst sessions or meetings, occasionally breaking these to confront each other. Past – moments in the recording studio, collecting their Ivor Novello Award – and present sit side by side and everything seems to happen all at once. The form has something of the testimonial about it which allows Penhall to grapple with the issues, often deftly demonstrating the nuances of the situation. But it is also quite distancing. The action plays out in a kind of oddly disconnected way, so that you never feel close to the characters. Perhaps that's the intention – we're hearing each side of the story – but it makes it harder to care.
Chaplin's Bernard is rough, whiney, jeans-wearing and dead behind the eyes. He is subtle and convincing in his portrayal of a man who really doesn't give two hoots about anything or anybody other than himself. Kerslake gives a lovely, hugely complex turn as Cat. She never asks for our sympathy, but gets it nonetheless. The rest of the cast – including Pip Carter and Jemma Redgrave who do very well with what they have as the therapists – are all very strong too. But Michell's decision to use a very long thrust stage, occasionally putting the cast who are not talking right at the back of the theatre, feels quite strange. The stage is too big and for those sitting below and looking up, moments are often lost.
At its best, Mood Music is a fairly galling, and probably very astute dissection of a business which co-modifies creativity and makes a huge packet off the back of it. And, of course, it's not just the music industry to which this will ring bells. It's a study of manipulation and control and goes some way to shining a spotlight on how powerful men get their way.