Review: The Piano Men ***


The Piano Men

The Space@ Jurys Inn, v260

15.05 (ends 25 August, not Wednesday)

*** (3 stars)

Another disappointing show: a pity, because its potential was considerable. Part of the fault is with me, for not being familiar with the repertoire of most of the “piano men” to whom Emma Knights was referring in her show, which is part autobiography and part tribute to a number of well-known [to everyone but me] singer/ songwriters who accompanied themselves on the piano. I’m not sure whether another factor was that Emma grew up and went to uni in Australia, and I am not familiar with the Australian music scene…

Emma is an accomplished pianist and singer, but the Yamaha keyboard she was playing wasn’t able to do justice to some of the pieces she played – the integral speakers simply didn’t give enough volume, for example, to the [abridged] piece by Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister. Fanny was herself an accomplished pianist and composer, but was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to consider her music anything more than a hobby which she would drop when she assumed her proper place as a Hausfrau. She mentioned her discovery of the music of Winifred Atwell, a Trinidadian pianist and composer famous in the 1950s, when her music was forever on the radio: disappointingly, Emma didn’t include any of her music in the show.

The keyboard produced more robust sounds when Emma was accompanying herself in songs and snippets of songs, including her own amusing Pianist envy [say that very carefully]: almost if not all the others are by MEN. This was part of her message – throughout the history of the genre, it has been expected that it will be men who will play the piano in bars and restaurants on cruise ships and on land. It was the attitude she encountered when she tried to get a job, and against which she is in her own quiet way protesting – as she says, if her example can inspire other women to refuse to be shut out of this male-dominated world, then hoorah!

Emma’s voice is good, and she had some nice witty or sardonic comments to make during her songs – but I found it hard to engage with her when nearly all the time she had her attention firmly fixed on her music or her script. She is the accompanist in another Fringe show this year, and someone is the audience commented that she is a brilliant accompanist: I felt that she wasn’t comfortable grabbing the spotlight or engaging with us very much – no spark or light lit her up while performing, which was a pity. It was a pleasant hour, but not, alas, a particularly memorable one.

Mary Woodward