Park Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Musicians have a reputation for being highly strung and that finely tuned temperament is tested to the extreme in Jesse Briton’s absorbing new play A Pupil at London’s Park Theatre. The destructive power of genius threatens the life of two rare talents in this fascinating work. A battle of wills ensues when a tempestuous and emotionally scarred teen violin prodigy is sent to a volatile, manic depressive, former virtuoso for lessons.
A Pupil offers hope and redemption for both of them as they begin a halting and confrontational friendship but, with neither of them giving an inch, the outlook is bleak. Can greatness be taught? And is this jaded, but once brilliant, musician the right person to do it?
Briton’s play is a beguiling character study about two flawed but superbly gifted individuals, one who threw her talent away and the other struggling to recognise it.
It opens with an unkempt Ye, in a wheelchair, contemplating suicide. She lines up bottles of paracetamol and starts washing them down with whisky before she’s interrupted by her well-meaning landlady, Mary.
Wallowing in self-pity Ye can’t be bothered to dress or leave her room despite Mary’s best efforts. Suddenly the door swings open and a teenager walks in. A Russian oligarch’s pampered princess.
Simona, 17, mistakes Mary for the maid before sullenly glaring at Ye and showing her contempt for the now disabled violinist. Simona has come for lessons before being considered by a top music school but she’s abusive, violent, petulant and fiery – probably everything Ye once was when she first started out.
The pair clash but Ye’s former friend and colleague, Phyllida, arrives and pleads with her to give the young girl lessons. Over the course of the next few weeks the pair begin an uneasy relationship, Ye secretly recognising the remarkable talent of the young girl who can’t read music and Simona giving hope to her teacher.
Lucy Sheen gives a bravura performance as the antagonistic Ye. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for her situation especially as, after a while, the audience comes to realise that it is of her own making. But Sheen is compelling. “You’re a bitter old hag with two broken legs!” spits out Mary in disgust.
The sad reality is that Ye was unable to cope with the pressure of her talent and hit the self destruct button.
But teaching Simona, if that’s what you can call it, seems to lift Ye and give her a sense of purpose, if only for a while. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is captivating as the explosive Simona. I don’t know anything about the violin but, to me, she played her set pieces exquisitely.
It’s a gem of a part. There is so much hurt and loneliness trapped inside the young girl. Her mother is dead, her businessman father treats her like another of his valuable assets and wants to see a return on his investment.
She is unloved, alone and unwanted. Her only gift seems to be able to mimic any musical piece she hears. It’s Ye’s job to get her to put aside impersonation and bring her own creative genius to her performances.
There a couple of standout moments that brought gasps from the audience. Certainly no-one could believe what Ye intended for her prodigy and thankfully she didn’t carry it through.
That may sound cryptic but I don’t want to give anything away. Go and see this volatile little production.
A Pupil plays at the Park Theatre until November 24.
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