This is an expanded version of my short review published online in One Hundred Words magazine [no longer available].
An appreciative audience in Welwyn Garden City were treated to Neil Brand’s hugely entertaining one man show, ‘The Silent Pianist Speaks’, when he brought it to the Hawthorne Theatre, Campus West last week.
With his charismatic stage presence, Brand – one of our foremost silent cinema pianists – quickly established a good rapport with the audience, taking them on a behind the scenes tour of the art of silent film accompaniment. With some well-chosen clips and some enjoyable audience participation, he illustrated the magical effect that sensitive musical support can bring to silent cinema: how it establishes a intimate connection between the audience and the film, and how the accompanist is in turn is influenced by the audience reaction. Through this creative and dynamic relationship between filmmaker, accompanist, and audience each screening becomes a fascinating, unique experience.
Amongst the excellent clips, which included a lovely Keaton moment and some action and adventure from Fairbanks, were two films I hadn‘t seen and which particularly impressed me. There was People On A Sunday (which Billy Wilder had a hand in scripting), a film as fresh, naturalistic and experimental as anything from the Nouvelle Vague. Then there was the gripping opening sequences of Anthony Asquith’s – A Cottage On Dartmoor – with scenes filmed only a mile or two from Campus West.
Brand also brought to life the historic context of silent film exhibition in the 20s, particularly the phenomenal level of skill required by the musicians and the sadness of all those supremely gifted craftsmen losing their jobs so suddenly. It’s easy to forget just how good they were and the tragedy of what happened to them when the talkies arrived.
Throughout the evening, though, laughter was never very far away, be it in Brand’s witty commentary or the wonderfully funny cinematic moments on screen, culminating in some classic Laurel and Hardy shenanigans.
All in all, it was an entertaining, informative, and inspirational evening. If you ever get a chance to see one of these shows, make sure you don’t miss it!