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Admission: One Shilling – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Deviser: Nigel Hess

Director: Christopher Luscombe

Reviewer: Glen Pearce

The Public Reviews Rating: ★★★½☆

In the darkest hour music has the unique power to lift the human spirit. In the dark days of World War II, as theatres and places of entertainment were closed down and the blackout descended, a cultural blackout threatened to make life in London even bleaker.

One woman, though, had a different idea. Concert pianist Myra Hess postponed her planned tour of America to organise a series of lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery. Six and a half years later, Hess has received a Damehood for her efforts and over three-quarters of a million people have attended one of 1,698 concerts held at the National Gallery – each getting the chance to let music propel them from their daily worries for the token cost of one shilling.

Devised by Hess’ great nephew, Nigel Hess, Admission One Shilling takes us on an hour –long trip through those wartime years and Hess’ conviction that music was a vital tool in boosting morale. Recollections and music that Hess herself performed at the concerts combine to highlight perhaps a less recognised part of the capital’s war time effort.

Hess’ dream was to provide music every day for whomsoever wanted to hear it and it was a dream she fulfilled throughout the war. It was also the opportunity to introduce a new audience to classical music, as Hess puts it: ‘There was nobody to tell people this music was over their heads, so they came and liked it’. There is much powerful imagery here, from the description of audiences picking their way through glass strewn streets to the vivid image of Hess inserting an unplanned crescendo into a Shubert waltz to cover the noise of a Doodlebug overhead.

Piers Lane’s musical accompaniment on the grand piano gives a flavour of those vital wartime concerts, culminating in a moving rendition of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Patricia Routledge’s portrayal of Myra Hess gives us a woman driven by the power of music and devoted to the aim of bringing that power to as wide a force as possible. A performance full of dignity and quiet authority, Routledge revels in the poetic, lyrical descriptions of wartime London, bringing them to vivid life.

Echoing the chamber music, this is a chamber production, a chair, a table and a grand piano and in many ways it seems more suited as a radio play than a stage show. While Christopher Luscombe’s direction does allow the language to shine, it is somewhat a static staging – not only physically but also in a story itself that lacks any real dramatic twists or climax. It’s all easy on the ear and one can admire the lady and the music but it’s something of a soporific effect. The show itself is preceded by a warm up of Chopin Waltzes by Lane and while this does provide some atmospheric context it sits oddly with the drama to follow.

Hess’s efforts in rallying musicians to raise morale during the war is perhaps a shamelessly forgotten part of wartime history and Admission One Shilling is a testament to both her efforts, the power of music and the skill of Miss Routledge but it misses a few beats for a truly dramatic stage event and would sit better as a radio drama.

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The Public Reviews was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.