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Review: The Piano Men at Gluttony, The Masonic Centre Adelaide

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

By Lisa Lanzi

As a young child Emma Knights always knew her future was in music. At eight, Emma decided that she was going to be a ‘piano man’ after falling in love with the songs of Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, and particularly Julian Lennon’s Saltwater which also spoke to her environmental concerns.

Here in Adelaide we are plunged into another Festival season, The Cabaret Festival AND Cabaret Fringe Festival. To fill you in a little, we lost a premier venue recently due to financial constraints (not through any fault of the operators). La Bohème was the centre of Cabaret Fringe and founder Paul Boylan was the originator of CabFringe. So fortunately for artists and audiences, the Gluttony team stepped in and our beloved CabFringe relocated to the lower depths of Adelaide’s former Masonic Centre, a grand old edifice on North Terrace, also a venue during Adelaide Fringe this year.

One reason to give this potted history is to say that Gluttony has some terrific features and ambience and the team and technicians do a brilliant job. However, the upright piano that Ms Knights used for this performance was quite creaky. I could hear some keys ‘sticking’ and clunking on the uplift and it must have been quite stressful for the performer who certainly deserves to play on a better instrument. The lighting could also have been a little better for the few sections where Ms Knights left her piano stool to move to another area onstage.

Despite any technical mishaps, Emma Knights is classically trained pianist and an exceptional musician - her playing is a highlight. Ms Knights is also an awarded entrepreneur running a number of successful music-based businesses and producing many in-theatre musicals. She decided to stretch her boundaries with this biopic solo endeavour and will perform it for the second time at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

During The Piano Men we are treated to eloquent stories about this performer’s life: learning piano with her father from age two (and then through high school and two tertiary degrees), being told by an early boyfriend that he didn’t know ‘why she bothered with all this music stuff’ because wasn’t she destined for house-wife status and other such stories which I am sure will resonate with all female musicians.  There are also revealed some alarmingly low statistics about numbers of women represented in various lists like the 100 most influential musicians of all time, or the fact that even though females outnumber males studying music in high school, it drops radically through tertiary studies and then in the professional world to around only 29% female versus male.

We are also privy to some startling historical facts about female composers and musicians throughout history: Clara Schumann - an acclaimed concert pianist and composer relegated to second place behind her ‘more’ famous husband and Fanny Mendelssohn, a gifted composer who had many songs published under the name of brother Felix. Knights also reveals that the piano keyboard was designed with the hand span of males in mind. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hand could span 28cm, which also explained why she had always had a little trouble mastering the middle section of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself with her 19cm span where Carmen has creatively inserted Sergei’s second movement from Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.

Wound seamlessly through all these enchanting and amusing tales are favourite songs and tunes which Ms Knights sings with a beautiful alto voice, both delicate and at times with a strong belt. She has a humble and heart-warming connection with the audience and this is a must see performance. Some of the songs are presented as they are, some have had verses ‘inserted’ so that they are interpreted from the female point of view and one original song called Pianist Envy brings out the humour. Say the phrase quickly a number of times! Due to her perfect diction, I can report that there were no slip-ups in Knights’ delivery: “I’m a piano woman, and I ain’t got pianist envy”.

One of the last songs is Tim Minchin’s Not Perfect. This seems fitting for the accomplished life Ms Knights has led and the barriers she has faced as a female ‘piano man’. She states that she is at a point now where she has learnt to “believe in what you want and what you stand for” and it is wonderful to see her take on this new role as solo performer.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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