queen and elton

The Covid 19 Variations

Birmingham Rep


It’s inevitable that when the world is gripped in any level of trauma, such as that of the Covid pandemic, that its effect would inspire creatives to reflect upon it all in some form.

It is precisely that scenario that has led to the creation of The Covid-19 Variations, loosely self-titled as ` A Piano Drama.' It’s the combined result of an internationally, self-distanced collaboration, comprising of the solo piano music of composer Richard Thomas, set to the images of photographer Alison Jackson.

The work has then been compiled by the REP’s Artistic Director Sean Foley  and is finally performed live by Birmingham’s own Philip Edward Fisher at the piano.

Alison Jackson’s photographic work is world renowned, using lookalikes such as those of Kanye West and members of Royal Family, placing them into every day or compromising situations and creating paparazzi style images of the result.

Her work seeks to parody an obsession with celebrity and fame and reducing that to the irony of it being visually believable even when we know it’s fake.

Composer Richard Thomas has several successful musicals to his credit, including Jerry Springer – The Opera and Anna Nicole. In this short work he has used the various states of the Covid epidemic as the inspiration for 19 short piano works. He himself admits it’s not exactly a variation on a theme, but more a series of well-crafted noodling that follows the mood of his original thinking.

The creative process began after Thomas fell ill with Covid himself and sent several musical sketches of the work to pianist, Philip Edward Fisher in New York. Fisher himself had suffered the fate of contracting a severe bought of Covid and so worked alone on developing the ideas. At the same time Alison Jackson was approached who gave over the resources of her entire library adding new filmed sequences to that, in order to illustrate the Covid 19 story.

The final piece of the puzzle was held by Sean Foley in the role of grand editor who was left to make sense of the images and place them against the music. There is no doubt the final work has many moments of delight when the music seems to match perfectly the mood of the images, but there is a troubling randomness about it all.

Jackson’s style works in a still photographic format because you get time to study the image at length and question the reality of it. Her images are always accurately framed enabling her to pick the perfect angle or grainy stock to further the fakeness of it all.



Philip Edward Fisher

Here though at times the shaky and blurry images flash by and if you don’t see who it is immediately then you are left wondering, before yet another set of fake images have rushed past. `Is that George Michael or Gary Barlow I couldn’t quite tell? It works best when it’s clear who it is.

Another disappointment was in this work, the fake actors are at times posed with the real celebrities. We are told that fashion designer Tom Ford is in there and we all know what he looks like in an instant don’t we? Jackson’s visual style is based on it being fake, but if it’s just another grainy out of focus shot of the real Elton John with a fake queen, then the power of her message is diminished.

Having the music performed live in full view with Mr Fisher seated at the piano does add a sense of theatre, but as you need to pay every second studying the screen, you dare not look away and so miss the visual representation of his performance entirely. If it had been pre-recorded then effect possibly would have been almost the same.

The performance is supported with a 40 minute Q and A with the four creators discussing the timeline of the work. This was a slightly uncomfortable affair with radio mics dropping out and the quartet indulging in a fair amount of public self-congratulation before allowing the audience to interject.

Jackson commented that the behind the scenes of creating her images were as funny as the final result. It seems it might have been better to have organised a short film featuring them all and the development of the work and few of those behind the scenes images that might have added a little more organised value to the Covid 19 main performance.

At best this is an adventurous visual work that has a few moments of genuine hilarity and deep pathos. The frivolity of Thomas’s Gershwinesque work flow into Debussy like passages and so change the mood of Jackson’s often shocking but extremely well-crafted work.

This is more of a `mashup’ of found and new images set to some fine new music, rather than a piano drama. Unfortunately, there is little time to concentrate fully on either in the 24 minutes it takes to run.

It is however a brave and worthy attempt to make sense of the past 18 months in a light hearted and frivolous manner. It however does not contain anything of the depth and real tragedy people faced so you won’t bring away any true reflection upon that time but you will get a few laughs.

Alfred Hitchcock once said ` if you can’t do it naturally then fake it’ and I guess here that’s more than true. To 09-02-22 

Jeff Grant


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