Movingmemoir hits a perfect note
St James Theatre
AMERICAN CONCERT pianist Mona Golabek’s solo show begins as it ends, with the Grieg Piano concerto in A minor. During the 90 minutes in between, Golabek tells the story of her mother Lisa Jura, a Viennese piano prodigy evacuated to London on the Kindertransport at the age of 14. That Golabek plays many other pieces with such agility and finesse would be impressive enough. But that she does so while simultaneously performing the role of her teenage mother turns what might otherwise be a moving if unremarkable monologue into something quite miraculous.
True, Golabek plays piano better than she acts. But, as she plays with such mesmerising skill, there is plenty of room below that standard of musicianship for the acting to do justice to her mother’s story. And justice it does, at times very movingly.
Lisa’s piano lessons were held on the opposite side of the Danube from where she was raised by her mother and father, a tailor, in the Jewish quarter. Once over the river, “I was in the Vienna of spires and palaces… of Mozart and Schubert,” says Golabek, the voice raised an octave or so to suggest her mother’s youth.
The grand sweep of Lisa’s story will be familiar to anyone who knows about the Kindertransport. But there is rare detail in the telling of this one.
When Lisa’s piano teacher Professor Isserlis says that he will no longer be able to teach Jewish children, the moment is weighed by Lisa’s memory of the German soldier in the street below, and also the professor’s simple confession, “I am not a brave man.”
And when, now in London, Lisa finds work as a seamstress making uniforms, Golabek describes the day job while playing Bach, her fingers flying across the keyboard with the speed of a sewing-machine needle.
Lisa lived in a rambling Willesden hostel for Jewish Kinder run by the redoubtable Mrs Cohen. It was here that she found her first audience and the encouragement to apply to the Royal College of Music, where she won a scholarship and a future as a concert pianist that she handed down to her daughter.
History, family memoir and music are combined as seamlessly as a segue. But it is Golabek’s piano playing, which begins and ends with the piece her mother performed at her concert debut, that makes the evening soar. Mona Golabek will perform at Willesden Green Library on Sunday at 3pm.