This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
Will Pickvance’s Alchemy of the Piano is quite simply the most charming hour you can spend at this year’s Fringe. Performing in Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre – an echoing yet intimate auditorium ringed by steeply, raked wooden seats that used to serve as a theatre for animal dissection apparently – Pickvance eloquently and elegantly dissects his own life in music. His hands constantly dance up and down the keys of an upright piano with its front panel removed to expose the intricacies underneath, the audience gazing down at him, enraptured.
Pickvance is an engaging performer, both in his piano-playing and his storytelling. The latter flits from anecdotes about his early family life to comic routines about his time as the resident pianist at Skibo Castle, where he had to cater to the erratic requests of the rich and famous – one tale concerning the Oscar-winning film composer Alan Silvestri is particularly funny. Pickvance’s soft voice, his obvious earnestness, and his ability to spin an anecdote out for several minutes whilst maintaining the audience’s attention make for truly entertaining tale-telling.
Expressive interludes of piano intersperse his anecdotes. These are particularly evocative, each suited to the location and moment of the story being told. Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre transforms into a cosy cocktail party, into the classroom of an eccentric teacher, before journeying out into the rugged wilderness of Scotland’s west coast. This perfect marriage of music and storytelling is extremely arresting.
But it is Pickvance’s individual numbers on the piano, his irresistible playfulness, his effortless fluidity, that impresses most. Here is a man that truly understands his instrument; here is a man for whom the keys, the pedals, the strings and the hammers are mere extensions of his arms and legs. It is only as a result of this expertise that Pickvance can entertain the audience with his subtle musical observations, his casual mash-ups of Mendelsohn and Madonna, his glorious elaborations upon Strauss.
Pickvance bookends his show with a quote from Thelonius Monk. “There ain’t no wrong notes on the piano” he tells the audience, “only 88 opportunities to be right.” Although the message of Pickvance’s show – that ultimately expressionism and imagination trump all else – is encapsulated perfectly in this phrase, one feels that it would be difficult for anyone but Pickvance to produce such evocative music in such charming fashion.