The Ballad of Hattie and James: this tale of a musical friendship gone wrong is note-perfect

Charles Edwards and Sophie Thompson in The Ballad of Hattie and James
Charles Edwards and Sophie Thompson in The Ballad of Hattie and James - Mark Senior
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We begin with a virtuosic pianist going viral after tinkling the ivories at St Pancras station. That might evoke Channel 4’s hit series The Piano, but Samuel Adamson’s new chamber piece is a rather different proposition. It follows the painful destruction of a friendship between two musical prodigies, Hattie and James, who reunite later in life – and provides a spellbinding showcase for the perfectly in-tune Sophie Thompson and Charles Edwards.

That subject matter, plus the nonlinear structure as we revisit them over the decades, recalls Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. Adamson’s play likewise poignantly juxtaposes the blithely hopeful early scenes with later recrimination and regret, while layering in deeper meaning and ghostly echoes.

The unlikely pals meet in 1976, aged 16, when their schools join forces to stage Noye’s Fludde. Hattie is a sweary, vodka-swilling feminist (she prefers Fanny to Felix Mendelssohn), while James is a peevish, self-important geek who worships Benjamin Britten. Adamson teases a romance, then modulates into a more complex dynamic; both characters are gay, and their shared passion is actually music. However, discordant notes are soon struck: jealousy, plagiarism, and a horrific accident which haunts them both.

That latter tragedy strays into murky melodrama, but it’s rescued by the beautifully detailed performances. Edwards makes the stuttering younger James so brittle he might just snap in half. He’s terrified to let anything slip, chiefly his repressed sexuality. In his bitter mature years, after his composing career has nosedived, he spills his secrets with reckless abandon, his physicality as liquid as his ever-present glass of wine. The only constant, in a great running gag, are his increasingly unfashionable corduroy trousers.

Thompson’s Hattie is initially a fearless, fizzing firecracker who discomfits James with her swooping delivery and bruising wit. But she battles addiction (as did her mother), and at her lowest point she staggers, wide-legged, as though trudging up a mountain through deep snow. It’s enormously affecting.

Sophie Thompson in The Ballad of Hattie and James
Sophie Thompson in The Ballad of Hattie and James - Mark Senior

The multi-roleing Suzette Llewellyn offers sterling support, and Richard Twyman’s elegant production ingeniously solves the musical element. The wonderful pianist Berrak Dyer – whisked into view on Jon Bauser’s revolve – plays Nicola T Chang and David Shrubsole’s Romantic original score while the actors sit beside her. Together, they convey the play’s thoughtful exploration of what music means to us: nostalgia or hope, expression, sanctuary, or a trigger for buried trauma.

I didn’t quite buy the accusation of misogyny lobbed at James. Otherwise this is a rich reckoning with our younger selves, with talent, desire, art and absolution, led by two actors who together create a great emotional symphony.

Until May 18. Tickets: 020 7328 1000;

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