In the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a forgotten slice of Manchester’s musical history is back this June. John Ogdon might just be the finest piano player you’ve never heard of. An accomplished sight reader, at one time he was as famous within the classical circles as The Beatles were in pop.
However, at the cost of this genius was his descent into ‘madness’. Ogdon increasingly suffered from psychiatric episodes throughout his life, eventually leading to self-harm and spells in psychiatric hospitals, with his wife Brenda forced to make a choice: the genius and the madman, or the perfectly sane and ungifted man. The music world and her friends were equally for and against the outcome of her choice.
Virtuoso was a biography written by Brenda and Michael Kerr charting the outstanding highs of their time on tour, and partly as a signal that John was back and in business after his treatment. Kerr recounted that he hadn’t actually intended to write the book, but thanks to Brenda’s energy suddenly found himself sat opposite a publisher.
Subsequently, two of the Ogdon’s friends Gerard and Carolyn (who are dramatised in the play) warned Kerr that Brenda ran the risk of becoming the laughing stock of the musical world. Kerr was able to see past this, and after observing the Ogdon’s at close quarters started to craft the narrative of book. In a scene seemingly typical of John’s view of the world, he didn’t seem to acknowledge that he had a story to tell, and was bemused by the whole experience.
Published in 1981, reaction was mixed, with some reviewers questioning exactly why Brenda had written the book in the first place. During the 1980’s, the rights to Virtuoso were optioned by the BBC with Producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and writer William (Bill) Humble beginning to formulate a screen version. That version aired in 1989 with Alfred Molina and Alison Steadman as John and Brenda.
Humble and Hinchcliffe, who are still involved in this new stage version, bring with them a rich vein of experience, but also authenticity. They both knew Brenda and John, and have tirelessly worked to ensure that the finished play reflects them and their story.
Humble recounted to the cast a story of meeting John, and that John’s social etiquette and boundaries was perhaps not as developed as they could be. All John could say on meeting Bill was to repeat several times how much he had enjoyed Bill’s writing on Churchill: The Wilderness Years.
At the heart of the play is an outstanding central performance from Simeon Truby as Ogdon. Appearing in every scene of the play, Truby is set a monumental task to portray Ogdon’s quirks and physicality and pulls it off with considerable aplomb. John becomes a whirling machine, subtle, fractured and bombastic in equal measure. When his psychosis takes hold, Truby can turn Ogdon on his head, from quiet mouse to forceful giant, this truly is a performance to behold.
Similarly, the other half of the play belongs to Kerry Willison-Parry as Brenda. Equally as forceful, Willison-Parry portrays Brenda with many multiple facets. Given the nature of the story, and the decisions Brenda is forced to make, it would be easy to portray her as one note, but Willison-Parry gives a powerfully strong performance, fleshing out Brenda’s frustrations at her situation and the world she inhabits in general.
Elsewhere, Pete Gibson portrays John’s father with genial insanity leading to a touching and emotional final scene between John and his Father. Martin Wenner and Morag Peacock as Gerard and Carolyn provide the vital human prism with which we can view the music world’s response to John’s illness with Wenner in particular playing a convincing devil’s advocate for Brenda.
Humble’s revised script for the play also gives a neat exercise in world-building, with the social parties, performances and strains built up nicely before John’s world begins to implode on him. Director Sue Jenkins also injects pace and energy into proceedings and it is to her credit that the change in surroundings and increased tension the Ogdon’s situation is palpable as proceedings crash towards their resolution. It is also lovely to ‘see’ the real John thanks to some archive footage at the start of the play.
Virtuoso is a complex piece about a complex man, but as a part of Manchester’s history that is not as well-known as that of Joy Division, or Oasis, this story is one that will surprise, shock and enthrall you in equal measure. With a stellar cast, and an outstandingly talented production team, this is bound to be one of the theatrical hits of this year. Thoroughly recommended.