Review: A Handful of Keys

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HandfulAfter 20 years A Handful of Keys has become something of an institution, but after two decades of performances and the involvement of five pianists, it still retains a simple and masterful magic.

Twenty fingers move in absolute precision, often at a blistering pace, while Ian von Memerty and Jonathan Roxmouth seem barely to pay attention to them.

They spend their time instead impersonating some of history’s most notable pianists, slinging jokes and educational titbits at the audience, and exchanging insults over a pair of grand pianos as part of a narrative that runs the length of the show – interrupted only when the two break into song.

Their voices complement each other and harmonise well, drawing the audience into moments of ballad beauty, punctuated with comic retakes on well-known songs which on occasion lapse into unintelligible screaming – an indication of their distaste for a specific track.

The interaction of the two performers is spot on; the timing of each glance, wink or gesture ensures comic value almost without exception. This is especially impressive because von Memerty, one of the show’s founders, is also the director – a daunting task from onstage.

The costumes are superb, and often while one pianist entertains the audience, the other slips off stage to find himself a new character in an ever more dazzling ensemble.

The impersonations are hysterically funny, and bring life to iconic pianists in a wonderfully light-hearted manner that still shows a deep veneration for the instrument and its masters.

While the show loses a little momentum in a few of the more out-of-place skits, and the humour at times tends towards old generalisations, A Handful of Keys is refreshing in that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  In the midst of all the goofing around, there is an open, honest humility from both performers, despite their monstrous talent.

Most of all though, it is von Memerty’s and Roxmouth’s unquestionable mastery of the piano that seals the deal. From start to finish, the music is beautiful, riveting and flawless.

Rory Appleton

A Handful of Keys runs at the Theatre on the Bay 19 July to 10 August 2014.

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