The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Hershey Felder’s moving theatrical drama of a child’s experience in London after escaping Nazi oppression. Reviewed by Laurence Green

The Pianist of Willesden Lane-Mona Golabek

An inspiring tale of survival and hope is how you could best describe the one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane (St James Theatre), based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.

Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitz, it tells the true story of Lisa Jura a 14-year-old Jewish pianist who is dreaming about her concert debut at Vienna's storied Musikverein concert hall. But with the issuing of new ordinance under the Nazi regime, everything for Lisa changes except for her love of music and the pursuit of her dream, as she is torn from her family and put on the Kinder transport to London. Arriving in the British capital, Jura was sent with 30 other Kinder to a hostel at 243 Willesden Lane, where to her delight, she found a piano. By day she worked in a factory making army uniforms. By night she played the piano to the other children using music to provide them with solace of becoming a concert pianist. Sadly her parents perished at Auschwitz concentration camp.

This production, which is adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, is more than just  another solo performance. It is a particularly personal journey into the past, as Lisa's real-life daughter and co-author of the book, Mona Golabek, describes her mother's experiences, when filled with heartbreak, she was forced to leave her parents and two sisters behind and start a new life in a foreign country. There are anecdotes about her mother's life in England as well as interviews with the other Kinder she lived with "I am alive today because of the generosity of the British people" Mona admits.

Throughout the war years Jura held on to her music, just as her mother had told her to do, and this became her "salvation". Mona adds: "If you have something to hold on to – whether it's music, poetry or your faith – you can find your way through even the darkest of times. And for my mother it was her music".

Interwoven into the narrative are a selection of some of the world's most beloved piano music played by Ms Goldbek on a grand piano. It includes Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16 first and second movements, Beethoven's Sonata, op. 27, no:2 "Moonlight", Debussy's Clair de Lure and Gershwin's Strike Vo the Band. Archive footage from the 30s and 40s is used to illustrate the story and enhance the atmosphere.

I feel, though, that a stronger script would have further increased my emotional involvement.

But there is no denying this is a moving theatrical experience and its staging is timely, as its run overlaps World Holocaust Day.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Runs at St James Theatre until 27 February 2016

Box office: 0844 264 2140

Last modified: April 7, 2021

Written by 1:20 pm Theatre