Seeing the great and the good, from Edward Fox to Edward Balls, play Schumann on the piano in front of a packed house at King’s Place was rather like watching a live pitch for a bourgeois version of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Instead of reality stars (Joey Essex), or people from your distant youth (David Emanuel) doing utterly terrifying things such as eating bugs, this had thespians (Simon Russell Beale) and people from your distant youth (Fox) playing a Steinway grand in public. Which option was the more ghastly? I don’t know, but both were fascinating, since with both, you were utterly transfixed, simply thinking ‘Thank Christ it’s not me up there’.
At the piano recital things ramped up quite a bit at the beginning thanks to the compere who came on stage and said ‘We are all TERRIFIED back stage.’ Then Alan Rusbridger arrived, sat down, hammered out his piece without turning a single one of his luxuriant hairs and we all started to relax a bit. King’s Place shares the same venue as the Guardian. ‘Do you know he smashed up the hard drives underneath this VERY concert hall?’, whispered someone behind me.
After Rusbridger came Edward Fox, Niamh Cusack, Richard Ingrams and Simon Russell Beale, who all made a pretty good fist of their pieces. Richard Godwin, a hack from the Standard, showed off by doing his without music. And then on came Ed Balls.
At this point, the tension in the hall grew considerably. Balls, in an immaculately cut suit, sat down at the Steinway not as if he was about to take his Grade Three (he had to postpone it for the Autumn Statement, which got in the way), but as if he had trained at the Juilliard. Although he confessed to me later his hands were shaking so much that he was glad he too elected to play without a score, since he was afraid he would drop it. ‘And there was no heckling,’ he said to me. ‘That was awful.’
Indeed, there was a sort of still, awed fascination as Balls got to grips with the ivories. Some snapper from The Mail impertinently clicked away as the piece went on, stopped for a heart-thrilling moment (‘had he forgotten what to play? Had he blanked? Was it the end?), and then cranked up again. At the end, everyone breathed a perceptible sigh of relief.
Of course actors can do what they like with their spare time, and do. But should we be irked that a public servant is wasting his time practising Schumann? For 40 minutes every morning, which according to Yvette Cooper is ‘the worst possible time, 8.20-9.00.’ Should Balls be grappling with the affairs of the country at that point? I think not. It’s quite good to see a powerful man, albeit one not exactly in power, (but that may only be a matter of time), understanding vulnerability and being made to feel fear – sheer, humbling, visceral fear before us, the electorate.
Rosie Millard is a journalist who plays the piano a bit worse than Ed BallsTags: Ed Balls, Edward Fox, Niamh Cusack, Richard Ingrams, Simon Russell Beale