Review: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Pianist of Willesden Lane. Mona Goabek. Pianist of Willesden Lane. Mona Goabek.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane, adapted for the stage and directed by Hershey Felder, and performed by Grammy nominated pianist Mona Golabek is a must see at the Segal.

Mona Golabek is a fine pianist and has performed with acclaimed orchestras, but even more remarkable, she studied acting in order to be able to bring to life the extraordinary true story of her mother Lisa Jura. Her mother was torn from her family in Vienna and sent with ten thousand other Jewish children to England as part of the Kindertransport. Lisa was a student of piano and her mother was also a pianist. The curious way that Lisa received her passage, (her father gambled all night for it), and her resilience in the face of horrifying reality make a fantastic a story.

After a harrowing train trip to the coast of France and a miserable voyage on ship over the English channel Lisa made it to England. At first, she was sent to the country as a seamstress on a great estate. She ran away to return to the agency responsible for refugees. She was re-assigned to a large hostel on Willesden Lane, where she met and befriended the many other refugee children and most importantly, discovered a piano in the basement.

Mona tells the most horrific parts of this story in a calm almost hypnotic tone, but what makes the narrative most compelling is her own bouts at the Steinway piano on stage where she plays magnificently throughout the story. The music of the composers whom she adores also is the story. Her mother’s very survival in London, and her acceptance into the Royal Academy of Music, and finally her playing for thousands of soldiers in a hotel during the war are all fleshed out with the notes of the most famous of composers.

Lisa Jura survived a bombing in London while she played the piano in the basement of the hostel on Willesden Lane. This is almost too much of a metaphor. However Mona Golabek’s understated delivery makes the moment heart wrenching and beautiful.

Then there is the music; Hershey Felder who adapted Golabek’s book (co written with Lee Cohen) to the stage, chose the most perfect pieces for each turning point of the narrative. Golabek plays the finale with a passion which is overwhelming and drives the audience to its feet to applaud with heartfelt gusto.

Finally there is the message which Mona was given by her mother, that her story of the Kindertransport and her ability to hold on to her music while she awaited news from her family and lived in London during the blitz is one of “Man’s Humanity to Man”. What sets this play apart is the remarkable delivery, the clear and heart-wrenching narrative, the music, and of course and the uplifting and beautiful message about survival. Golabek has been touring everywhere with this wonderful work and we live in a world in which her beautiful story and astonishing music are sorely needed.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is playing at the Segal Centre from September 8 to 29. For tickets, click HERE.