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Behind Every Genius

Ben and Imo at the RSC. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

Ben and Imo by Mark Ravenhill at The Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, running until 6 April 2024.

Review by Ann Cee

Behind every genius is an extraordinarily generous woman… or at least that’s the story of “Ben and Imo” which tracks the enduring musical partnership between composers Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, and pushes at the possibility of something deeper, more personal, held in check to honour Ben’s relationship with tenor, Peter Pears.

It’s the early 1950s and Ben (Samuel Barnett) is grappling with the pressure of writing his biggest work to date – a grand opera to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – in just about nine months.  It’s a terrifying prospect so he’s called on his pal, Imo (Victoria Yeates) to provide ‘musical assistance’.  They never really define what this involves or whether it will attract remuneration but the arrangement seems to carry them both through the trials and tribulations associated with the creative process.

Victoria Yeates as Imogen Holst. Photo Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

The opera being constructed, “Gloriana”, never really seems to find its feet in the musical world or in popular culture, but the process of it being created by Ben and Imo, seems to cement a lifelong understanding that sees Ben and Imo collaborating by the sea at Aldeburgh for the rest of their lives.

‘Ben and Imo’ is a play that explores the highs and lows of a very human relationship that is inspiring and supportive as well as dark, painful and somewhat mysterious.  It’s not easy to define what holds this pair of creatives together, all the while in the ever present shadow of a third, the absent Peter Pears.

Samuel Barnett as Benjamin Britten. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

Whilst the main narrative of the play is the challenge of an acclaimed composer facing the expectations of the establishment and the nation to repeat his musical genius in a new piece of very public work, the core interest of the piece is the story of Imo. 

Imo, daughter of famed musical genius Gustav Holst, is a captivatingly complex character who brings vivacity and style to the show.  She seems as likely to break into an aria as she is to step into a folk dance, and that’s fine by the extraordinary Victoria Yeates who is more than capable of showing us how.

Victoria Yeates as Imogen Holst. Photo Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

The play provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and talents of the person credited with mainstreaming music lessons in communities and schools throughout the country – it seems Imo was the reason for all those recorder lessons and choir rehearsals we associate with our schooldays. 

There’s little doubt that Imogen Holst should be a better known cultural icon and the nation would be much richer if we had another one like her. 

A thought provoking and inspiring play, delivered with passion, sensitivity and panache.  I loved it.

Directed by Erica Whyman, music composed by Conor Mitchell and piano by Connor Fogel. 


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