A Pupil Review

Park Theatre until 24 November

Reviewed by Claire Roderick

3***

There’s a lot packed into this tight four-hander by Jesse Briton – the production’s tagline asks can greatness be taught? – 90 minutes of being put through the emotional wringer with Briton’s four flawed characters brings you no closer to an answer, but the passionate arguments make for entertaining viewing.

The play opens quietly, with a bedraggled woman in a wheelchair organising bottles of paracetamol next to a bottle of scotch. This is Ye (Lucy Sheen), a violin virtuoso who has turned her back on the world. Her solitary existence is disrupted by stroppy teen Simona (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), who has demanded that Ye teach her. The fact that Simona’s father is a Russian billionaire means that the Royal Conservatoire are bending over backwards to accommodate the girl’s whims, with Ye’s old friend Phyllida (Carolyn Backhouse) acting as go-between.

As Simona’s natural gift is revealed to Ye, her obsession with the purity of talent and individuality is heightened. As the combative, lonely girl bonds with Ye, the prospect of her mental health improving seems hopeful, but Simona’s upcoming audition becomes a crisis point.

Spencer-Longhurst is wonderfully sharp as Simona, allowing glimpses of the scared and abandoned little girl beneath to trickle through. Her glares and eye rolls are hysterical, making Sheen’s role as teen-whisperer most gratifying. There are a few shocking moments that will make you wince, but the building understanding between them is well written. Sheen portrays Ye’s mental darkness effectively, with a blank aspect that shows her disconnect with the world. This could be a depressing play, but lightness and a less dark humour are added in abundance by Melanie Marshall as Mary, Ye’s god-fearing, hymn-singing landlady. Their odd-couple, co-dependent relationship is completely unhealthy, but seems to be all that is keeping them going.

Staged in the round, on a stark set with broken violins strung above it, director Jessica Brady has cast members with their back to the audience often, but this works as a symbol of their insular view of the world. The opposing viewpoints of Ye and Phyllida – discipline or passion, compromise or individuality, is talent only validated by having an audience? and many more, have been, and will continue to be, fuel for heated debate, and Briton wisely leaves the argument hanging in a determinedly downbeat ending. What haunts you as you leave the theatre is the beauty of Spencer-Longhurst’s playing, and the joy that comes from musicians sharing their talent with those of us who never quite mastered the recorder.

A Pupil has lots to say in a slightly muddled way, but the talented cast allow the flashes of brilliant promise in the story to shine through. Well worth a look.

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