The Anatomy of a Piano: A historical dissection


Good news! I have friends!

Yes, after the sorry state of affairs that was being a little lone larry back in December of last year, things looked like they were getting pretty desperate. BUT NOT SO! Disparaging loneliness aside, I couldn’t deny how much I had enjoyed my little flirt with the universe of children’s theatre, and this week, I was offered (yes offered, by real-life friend people!) the chance to step back into the stalls in the Bath Egg for the curiously enigmatic The Anatomy of a Piano.

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My favourite way to approach any piece of dramatic or performance media, is to do so with absolutely no preconceptions. If I can avoid it, I do no research and I enter with the glorious naivety of an open mind, before it can be sullied by any further knowledge or expectation. I think this approach is probably even more poignant for a children’s production. It’s my, uncompromisingly adult, attempt to revisit the limitless possibility of the imagination of a little one; exploring everything for the first time with no prior understanding of what it might or should be.

So, armed with nothing more than the title and the knowledge it had made a solid debut at the Edinburgh fringe, my companions and I settled with absolutely no understanding or expectation.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be a Space man.

 

While a bit of a veteran with children’s media, theatre is very much a new frontier for me. I honestly did not know what to expect, but I certainly think I was surprised by what I found. It was a performance, certainly. A wonderful performance from a remarkably talented pianist (go figure), Will Pickvance. But, as the boundaries between contemporary media continue to merge in increasingly surprising manners, it’s entirely unfair to think of The Anatomy of a Piano as mere recital. However brilliant a recital it may have been.

An educational piece? Yep, it certainly ticked that box, our one man band managed a concise tour through the historical landscape of the piano, from it’s earliest ancestry to more familiar ground, stopping off on the way to acknowledge the fathers of piano musical development as he did so. Accompanying the history were simply scrawled, projected slides and a biological script that introduced the title’s scientific dissection into the mix. A faux lesson in which historical development was explored through the anthropomorphism of the instrument.

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Evolution. You know, in pianos and giraffes.

Unsurprisingly, the score was a sensational accompaniment, bringing each era to life with a rich journey through their musical trends and the key developments brought about by a small number of the most pioneering of composers. In caves.

Obviously.

But no, it wasn’t really a ‘history lesson via recital’ kind of deal either. Pickvance’s curious, autobiographical opening set the conversational tone that escaped the traditional educational shackles too. Confiding in the audience his young disappointment at Father Christmas’s inability to provide a spaceship as requested, Pickvance quickly formed a relationship with his audience, inviting the playful interactivity of audience participation. From counting down his attempted piano take off, to desperately trying to answer questions to the frustratingly teasing responses, The Anatomy of a Piano engaged children with the effortless humor and fun of your favourite, silly uncle.

I don’t like instructions.

But naturally, I couldn’t comment on the engaging, delivery prowess of Pickvance, without giving equal praise to his counterpart. With the guidance of the, self titled instruction manual, Pickvance accessed the piano’s wide range of audible possibility, creating the emotional and dramatic emphasis to the performance. From the building quibbles of the early take off, to an immediately understood representation of ice cream, the piano set every stage of our journey entirely through sound. I found it reminiscent of the televised version of Rayman Brigg’s The Snowman, in which the perfect score does to much of the talking.

But for all the musical talent, for all the engaging history, for all the cleverly devised musical drama, I think what struck me the most, was the entirely played down, simplistic and mature nature of the play.

I reckon it’s a common assumption that in order keep a child’s attention for 55 minutes, there’s a requirement for bright colours, over enthusiastic tones and bouncing presentation. The low budget charm of an empty stage, a man in a jacket and his upright piano seems a thousand miles away from the vibrant, Ceebeebies presentation you may expect.

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Well, that and the piano disco at he end. But you can’t deny the magic of a closing piano disco. Who doesn’t want to go out with a bang?

But surprising or not, the delightfully mature and simple presentation was all that was needed. Admittedly there was a few minutes or so towards the middle when my fellow audience members started getting a little fidgety and I thought that perhaps the simplicity of the show may have run it’s course.

But I was entirely wrong. A little humour, a sing song to flawless music and the perfect touch of just enough ridicule of outdated yet familiar methods of teaching, and the kids were back in the palm of his hand. The littlest loved the silliness, entranced by the cunning, often comical use of piano to develop a sense of place, and their eagerness to participate. The bigger ones identified with observations of boring, forced piano lessons, threatening all the life the show had brought to the instrument and reveled in the off-beat, biological retelling of historical development.

I don’t how to classify The Anatomy of a Piano as anything other than pure performance. It was talent, it was humour, it was fun, it was learning. It was everything it should have been, whether I knew what that was or not.

Curious and simple, it’s a tale of love and talent and has absolutely convinced me that a piano is light years better than a spaceship.

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