TWO pianos and two Canadians with, indeed, four hands between them - may not sound the most promising recipe for West End success.
But this delightful, ninety-minute cabaret confounds all expectations. Anyone who ever had a piano lesson will understand the rapture and despair.
Ted Dykstra, of Dutch extraction, and Richard Greenblatt, with a Jewish background, exemplify a spirit of competition, and of growing older with the chore of becoming a great artist. They each settle for living with mere competence.
But when they play Bach duets, or Mozart sonatas, as well as Scott Joplin and snatches of John Lennon and Jerry Lee Lewis, we witness the true power of pleasure in great art.
Their message is one of learning to live with yourself while being best in the neighborhood, not best in the world.
Keyboard charisma runs deep, and I'm not just talking. Liberace or Richard Clayderman. Dirk Bogarde as Listz, or Geoffrey Rush in Shine, have made piano playing a transfixing matter of life and death.
Victor Borge and Dudley Moore have made it gloriously funny, too.
This is where Dykstra and Greenblatt belong, in the company of keyboard clowns and passion. There is a moment when they sit, jaws agape, listening to Vladimir Horowitz's recording of the Mephisto Waltz in the Carnegie Hall, and they know their limitations, glimpse another horizon.
One is humiliated at the conservatoire, unable to play a Schubert Impromptu without the sustaining pedal, the other derided at a jazz factory for daring to decorate My Funny Valentine with showy trills.
On a bare stage, the two characters are pupils, parents, teachers and finally competent, touching virtuosi in touch with their deep, abiding love of music. Jeremy Sam's production is a rare jewel of real entertainment.
This was an unclassifiable evening of music theatre, sponsored by Steinways, Classic fm and the Canadian High Commission, for which it is hard to find adequate superlatives. It should interest every reader of S&H. After more than 600 performances across the Atlantic and in Birmingham, this semi-autobiographical account of two lives in classical music, written by two doubly accomplished duo-pianist actors, has arrived in the West End, where it ought to remain for hundreds more performances. It was a triumph on every count.
The action at and around two Steinway pianos takes us step by step through the agonies of piano teaching and learning, with early childhood practising under parental supervision, which is brilliantly caricatured, through to late adolescence and the confrontation with the realities of adult life in the music profession. Locally they have excelled;
eventually they come to recognise their limitations and face the truth. Disillusion is confronted by one at a conservatoire audition, then by the other at a jazz school where he had sought possible salvation. Finally, the issues become whether and when to quit, and what to do then.
This melancholy story is told with irresistible humour and high acting and pianistic skill. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt enact some twenty different characters in twenty different ways and accents, without costumes. All of us have experienced many of the situations, and cannot fail to recognise teachers we can remember, and ourselves as child or parent. It is achingly funny.
Whilst 2 Pianos 4 Hands is highly specific in every telling detail, the world of the classical piano is equally a metaphor for the struggle towards supreme excellence which is beyond most of us, whether in the performing arts, sports or professions.
Dykstra and Greenblatt are no mean pianists, and their performances of Bach's D minor concerto, and of excerpts from the classical piano canon, demonstrates how close they both might have been to making it. They have found their salvation in writing and performing this marvellous show and too in highly successful and varied theatrical careers in Canada.
The direction by Jeremy Sams, the set and its lighting all contribute to the triumph of this well honed and sophisticated show. An additional bonus is the programme book, uncommonly good value for money for once, with biographical information that is of central relevance on this occasion. There are four fascinating pages of interview material about Ted's and Richard's formative years spent with the piano, which they have explored and exorcised in 2 Pianos 4 Hands. Well worth a special trip to London.
"...The four hands sprout from two Canadians, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, each of whom abandoned a prospective career as a pianist for one as an actor. This is their story, and an enormously enjoyable one it is... Dykstra and Greenblatt perform not only their own child, adolescent and adult selves, but teachers desperately trying to explain what rhythm is and parents threatening loss of pocket money for lack of proper practice... Both performers have the comic skill to give us characters sulky, exasperated or scathing, and the musical skill to tackle some moderately taxing pieces. Indeed, what earns them the right to give us Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag as a jokey encore is a very decent joint rendering of one of Bach's concertos for harpsichord. But Jeremy Sams's production isn't only amusing and pleasing to the ear. There's sadness here too. Late in the play they get high on beer and listen to a record of Horowitz performing Liszt in Carnegie Hall. "If you're not going to play like that, what's the point?" asks one, and the other has no answer. Most of us are doomed to be alpha-minus or beta-plus at best, and our punishment is to know it." – The Times