Writer: Jesse Briton
Director: Jessica Daniels
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Can greatness be taught? A Pupil, Jesse Briton’s new 90-minute one-act play, an all-female four-hander, poses that question, asking also whether talent can thrive without discipline and whether discipline, in turn, will suffocate talent.
Ye is a gifted violinist of Chinese origin, who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car crash, but it becomes clear that her severe depression is more crippling than her physical injuries. She barely makes ends meet by tutoring and Simona, the teenage daughter of a Russian billionaire, who is alienated from all around her, is brought to Ye to be prepared for entry exams for the Royal Conservatoire.
Lucy Sheen’s Ye exudes gloom and defeat, fiercely refusing all help to bring her back to a full life. She can pass down her own philosophy and teach her pupil to express her inner self through her instrument, but she recognises that this may achieve only self-fulfillment and not a tangible success. The shambolic Ye is contrasted by Carolyn Backhouse’s confident Phyllida, vastly inferior to her as a violinist when they were students together, but now a prominent figure at the Conservatoire.
As Simona, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, wearing school uniform and with a long pigtail, overdoes the petulant brat act just a little, but she shows great skills with the violin, playing classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Melanie Marshall, playing Mary, Ye’s gospel-singing, persistently interfering landlady, is delightfully comic, bringing welcome relief to what could have been a wearying drama.
Jessica Daniels’ in-the-round production is as highly-strung as any of the dozen or so violins hanging above the stage in Jessica Staton’s simple design. Briton poses intriguing questions regarding the teaching of skills in music (or indeed any other field of the arts), but, when she puts the anti-convention arguments into the mouth of a character who is mentally ill, it is sometimes difficult to decide if the case being made has real validity or is just a dramatic catalyst.
At the beginning, A Pupil looks set to turn into a drama of mutual redemption and, as such, there feels to be a threat that it could be undone by its predictability. However, the more that the play veers away from that well-trodden path, the more engaging it becomes. Perhaps trying too hard to avoid the obvious, Briton reaches an uncertain conclusion, but still this is an accomplished, if not entirely convincing, work of theatre.
Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Meurig Marshall