The Cocktail Pianist is one of those wonderfully sneaky shows you only find at the Fringe – one which tricks you into thinking that it's nothing particularly special, then slowly reveals the solid talent under a seemingly-flaky veneer. The talent in this case belongs to performer Mike Hatchard, who's not only a fine actor but an impressive pianist as well; the veneer is his character Bernard, who spends his life as a jobbing musician tinkling the ivories at the Luton Skyport Hotel.
Bernard cuts a curious figure, booming yet querulous, talking far too fast as he runs through a series of childhood reminiscences. The stories are amusing – featuring music, beer and sex – and revealing a liberating willingness to go wherever life takes him. You sense that Bernard doesn't quite fit in with society, but also that it doesn't really bother him; the story's accompanied by fragments of music, which Hatchard plays live, subtly adding to both the realism of the narrative and the intelligent humour of the monologue.
Every now and then, something casts a dark shadow across this cheery brightness, and it's hard to be sure whether Bernard is content with his lot or simply putting a brave face on things. The emotional swings feel a little shallow after a while – you can only do so many sudden shifts of mood before your audience starts to predict them – but the character study is certainly a credible one, with hints of depression and an acknowledgement of alcoholism speaking of a struggle to live comfortably inside his own skin.
There's a touch of obsessiveness there, and the suggestion of a troubled genius, but Hatchard manages to keep Bernard an accessible and likeable character. His seemingly inconsequential ramblings offer warm-hearted insights into the unusual workings of his mind, while his story offers a sense of what it's like to fly terrifyingly high… and suddenly feel the doubts creeping in.
The twist at the end isn't quite as revelatory as I felt it wanted to be, and when all's said and done there's unlikely to be anything here that changes your life. But The Cocktail Pianist is witty, engaging and occasionally touching – just what you want at 5:15 on a pleasant afternoon. He tricked me at the start, but by the end, there's no doubt Hatchard was playing my tune.