Park Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Of all the arts, music alone has the ability to transcend time, space, language and culture. To be able to convey one’s innermost emotions through such a medium is one of the highest and purest forms of expression. However, by the same token, having that ability stripped away is akin to losing an extension of oneself, deprived of the capacity to communicate. Written by Jesse Briton and directed by Jessica Daniels, A Pupil explores this conundrum and how someone who is ‘broken’ might possibly help someone else find their musical ‘voice’.
Ye (Lucy Sheen) spends her time at home getting drunk. Ever since her accident, she has been wheelchair-bound and fallen into depression. However, because Ye’s a lodger, her landlady Mary (Melanie Marshall) doesn’t give her much leeway to indulge in self-pity – often trying to help her find a new vocation. The arrival of Phyllida (Carolyn Backhouse) – an acquaintance from the past – reawakens painful memories. Yet Phyllida’s insistence that Ye tutors a child prodigy proves to be instrumental in reinforcing Ye’s uncompromising opinions about the source of true music…
At the beginning, Ye is very much like ‘Stephanie Anderson’ in Tom Kempinski’s Duet For One where circumstances robbing her ability to play (plus other factors) have made her angry and bitter, with no avenue for emotional release. However, after being introduced to her pupil Simona (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), Ye sees reflections of herself – the prestigiously talented girl she was 20 years ago and the woman she is now, who hides her pain by her outward ‘unapproachable’ demeanour.
Sheen’s Ye is a woman of ‘extremes’ – able to speak in calm, measured meter when the mood suits her, yet equally capable of ‘tearing strips’ off anyone who angers her. In contrast, Marshall’s Mary provides much of the play’s humour. As someone who perennially sings ‘Lord of the Dance’ (as if Ye needs a reminder she can’t walk…) and possessing an uncanny ability to make the wrong assumptions about situations, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ye and Mary don’t see eye-to-eye.
While Phyllida isn’t on stage for much of the play, her past with Ye is the cornerstone of Ye’s state of mind. Much like the relationship between Lambeau and Maguire in Good Will Hunting, the difference of opinion about what constitutes ‘success’ in the musical arena divides the seasoned musicians, though the sentiment that hangs in the air is “Those who can’t, teach…” Which brings us to Simona…
A teenager with a wealthy father, but no mother-figure, Simona is Ye’s ‘child’ in all but name. It’s of no surprise that Ye intuitively senses Simona’s alienation and how to coax her from her ‘defensive’ position of ‘safety’. Spencer-Longhurst plays the violin in every performance – primarily compositions by Colin Sell. It goes wthout saying that it’s absolutely beautiful to listen to and cements Spencer-Longhurst’s reputation as a gifted actor-musician.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Simona
A word should also be made about Jessica Staton’s set design. Violin shells suspended from the ceiling mirror the Park Theatre’s bar upstairs, where books are suspended in the same fashion. In conjunction with ‘strings’ stretched from the ceiling to the ground to suggest ‘entrances’, the performance space reminded me of the opening of Fantasia with the semi-abstract musical motifs, comprised of curves and lines. Certainly a pleasant change from what normally passes for set design.
© Michael Davis 2018
A Pupil runs at Park Theatre until 24th November.
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