Review: Empty Room at Camden People’s Theatre

Named for the only song her parents wrote together, which opens and closes the performance, Miriam Gould’s Empty Room is a deeply personal one-woman show that explores her family history and the important part music has played – and continues to play – in that story. A courageous, soul-baring performance, it’s by turns funny, poignant and surprisingly educational; I certainly know a lot more now about Dmitri Shostakovich than I did going in.

Empty Room at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

The show features one performer but four characters, all of them real people. There’s Miriam herself, aged 14, breathlessly giving a classroom presentation about her favourite composer. Then there’s Rachel Gould, her mother, a sophisticated jazz singer sharing personal anecdotes with her audience in between numbers. Next there’s fast-talking Sal Nistico: jazz saxophonist, self-confessed heroin addict, and Miriam’s father.

Finally, there’s Miriam again, but here and now, revealing directly to the audience that her teen obsession with Shostakovich is in fact representative of something far more personal – the loss of her father, an event she acknowledges she’s still processing nearly two decades later. With the benefit of hindsight, she can admit that for all his genius as a composer, as a man her teen idol had his flaws. In the same way, her father wasn’t perfect, and neither Miriam, her mother nor even Sal himself ever try to pretend otherwise.

Even so, and despite the fact we’re never able to see them directly interacting, the show always overflows with a feeling of deep mutual love and pride, not just between daughter and father but between all three family members. And what we do see is how their separate personas – each represented by an item of clothing – begin to intermingle as the show goes on, finally ending up arranged neatly on the ground around Miriam’s own violin, which takes centre stage throughout. It’s a simple but highly effective way of bringing the family together for the show’s moving finale.

It goes without saying that music plays a huge part in the show. The track list is made up of several numbers written by either Rachel or Sal, and just as we’re invited by the teenage Miriam to hear the hidden story in Shostakovich’s work (which also features prominently in the track list, unsurprisingly), so her parents’ music offers us greater insight into the people who created it. The impact of music on teenage Miriam is obvious, but while adult Miriam admits wryly that that younger version of herself was pretty intense, the passion that goes into her performance and presentation of her parents’ work live on this stage makes it clear she feels that impact no less powerfully now than she did back then.

Empty Room by Miriam Gould at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

Empty Room is the kind of show that makes you feel privileged – not only because it’s so well performed, but because the story it tells is so very personal. The final monologue is delivered with charm and humour, but also an intimacy and raw honesty that’s genuinely moving. Beyond that, though, the show also really makes us think about both the nature of family and the power of music within our own lives (after the show, each audience member is invited to contribute to the Survival Playlist). An eloquent tribute and an engaging hour of entertainment; with her first solo show, Miriam Gould has set the bar high.

Empty Room continues on tour – see miriamgould.com for details.