Sometimes after a traumatic experience the brain is forced to shut down, if the trauma is so great that that’s what it takes for the person to carry on as normal. This is one of lead character Dr Alex Hendrik’s numerous insights into the workings of the human brain and its links to the human condition that punctuate The Piano Man. The lectures specifically analyse Andreas Grassl, the enigmatic figure who, in true-life events, washed up on a beach on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent, 2005. Soaking wet, traumatised and unable to speak, he was hospitalised, where he communicated solely through the keys of a piano.
This unique and curious story prompted a media storm and global search to discover his identity. He became known worldwide as the Piano Man, but almost as quickly as his story became famous, he faded into obscurity. Ten years later, theatre company Allthepigs are using the rumours, claims and theories abound at the time to retell Andreas’ story at the New Diorama Theatre.
The Piano Man cleverly attempts to stitch together Andreas’ backstory through flashbacks of his unrequited love in Germany and Dr Hendrik’s lectures on brain trauma, attempting to explain the science and make sense of the trauma experienced by him. In the care of Dr Hendrik and her hospital staff, Andreas is either unable or unwilling to speak. Comparably, his past life in Germany and the use of his mother tongue makes him feel equally mysterious and foreign. In both instances the audience is forced to scrutinise his body language and expressions to gain a window to the inside.
The analysis is a testament to the director Sam Carrack’s research, who spoke to psychologists and mental health nurses to gain a picture of what the man might have gone through. They stopped short of searching for Andreas himself, who has faded into anonymity since revealing his true identity in 2005 after months of remaining mute.
Daniel Hallissey, who learned to play the piano from scratch for the role as Andreas, portrays the elusive character as a helpless, but charming individual, with incongruously cocky and nonchalant body language, which again begs the question, is he unable to speak or unwilling?
The other characters are just as anonymous themselves, with no backstories to speak of. They exist in the present moment, only to aid the progress of Andreas’ story. Regardless, The Piano Man triumphs because it is a personal story for all characters, not just Andreas. His slow progress frustrates the staff and pushes hospital working relationships to the limit. The American journalist puts his relationship on the line to cover the ultimate scoop and ends up paying the ultimate price. The Piano Man fever becomes a victim of its own success and essentially too big and bloated for everyone involved.
Allthepigs have filled many gaps in the story, but as with the real event, many questions are left unanswered. Dr Hendrik’s lectures raise the question, if we don’t know what other person is thinking, how can we know whether they are faking or not, and if they are, why? Would it be worth it?
Perhaps that question is directed at the fickle nature of the press, who turned against Grassl after revealing his identity as hailing from a farm in Bavaria and ostensibly not even a very good piano player. The Piano Man went from a media sensation to a fraud overnight. In the play there is perhaps some bitterness on the journalist’s behalf due to his ruined relationship, but the question is left as a possibility.
Andreas’ story is one of loneliness, rejection and of finding oneself in a modern world that can be alienating and disillusioning. The play attempts to bridge the understanding of what the Piano Man went through. The melancholy of his haunting and plaintive piano playing could only come from deep within someone with personal trauma. That, is the key to understanding the play. 5/5
Review written by Evan Parker.
The Piano Man was on at the New Diorama Theatre from Tuesday 11th-Saturday 15th November. For more information on theatre company, allthepigs, visit here…