What is greatness? Shakespeare addressed this question in Twelfth Night with his famous line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”. The one aspect that is not looked at here is whether or not greatness can be taught, and if so, what does it take to get from good to great? And, maybe more importantly, why would you want to make that transition? All of this and more is explored in Jesse Briton’s new play A Pupil which is having its world premiere at Park Theatre.
In a rough old bedsit, Ye (Lucy Sheen) is contemplating something from which there is no return. Tired, stuck in a wheelchair she is reaching for the pills and the bottle, as a way out of all of her problems. However, her friend and landlady – a well-intentioned, interfering, evangelical Christian by the name of Mary (Melanie Marshall) – has other ideas and thinks Ye needs to do something with her life – even if it means working at a local coffee shop. Before this happens, there is a visitor to Ye’s flat in the shape of a teenage girl with a lot of attitude. Hot on her heels comes Phyllida (Carolyn Backhouse) the principal of the Royal Conservatoire who introduces the young girl as Simona (Flora Spencer-Longhurst). Simona’s father – a Russian billionaire – wishes his daughter to join the Conservatoire but, to date, she has not had a single violin lesson. Phyllida, who knows Ye from when they studied together, wants Ye to tutor the child and prepare her for an entrance audition to join her school.
At first glimpse, A Pupil struck me as a typical ‘buddy’ story. A world-weary cynical old person who has given up hope is rescued from the pit of despair by a happy-go-lucky youngster who shows them there is still meaning to life. In fact, Jesse Briton’s play couldn’t be further from this scenario if it tried. Ye is world-weary and cynical, but she is also clinically depressed. Simona is young but arrogant with an attitude that sucks on every level. She is stuck in an English boarding school where the other pupils almost definitely look down on her for having a lack of breeding and a thick Russian accent. That the two strike up some form of relationship cannot be denied, but the real relationship the two have is with music and the violin.
And violins really do dominate this piece. They are literally hanging over the actors throughout and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting means that there are always shadows of the instruments wherever you look. The show is played in the round and, whilst this gives a feeling of intimacy and being close to the unfolding events, it leads to horrendous sightline problems. For example, the entire opening sequence of Ye at her desk was completely missed by a quarter of the audience who could only see the back of Lucy and her wheelchair. Similarly, near the end, I couldn’t see past Mary to Simona. To me, playing in the round only really works if there is a lot of movement and Jessica Daniels’ direction was too static to bring out the best of this presentation style.
Having said that, I really enjoyed the play itself. I think the relationship between the four characters was just right. Lucy Sheen gave off a really authentic melancholic air as Ye and Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Simona really came across so that it was possible to be both exasperated by her and sympathetic towards her at the same time. And then there was the playing. Just as Little Voice has to have an actor that can mimic the stars of yesteryear, so A Pupil requires a violinist who can master and perform Colin Sell’s compositions, and Spencer-Longhurst absolutely knocked it out of the park. Such an important part of the story, the music is almost a character in its own right and she really did do justice to every note. Melanie Marshall’s wonderful gospel singing Mary was a lovely example of how much a play needs a comic relief character to keep the atmosphere from becoming too heavy and Phyllida was the perfect example of someone who has compromised themselves to get what they wanted. Carolyn Backhouse is nicely turned out – very Jane Asher in appearance – and has the right touch of ruthlessness to ensure that her wishes are fulfilled.
There were some very funny moments in A Pupil and some intensely dark moments which go together to explain why these four unlikely people are intertwined and, what their futures were going to be. The writing is nicely balanced to avoid cliches and, without going into too much detail, but really delivers a punch. There was a moment, near the end of the ninety-minute run, where I think every single member of the audience held their breath and waited to see what would happen next. The ending was something that could be left to interpretation. I believe, based on the four people I had met and come to understand, that I know where the characters would go after the curtain dropped, but I could be wrong so I leave it up to you to come to your own conclusions.
Review by Terry Eastham
Merging live classical music and new writing, A Pupil explores the relationship between an ex-professional violinist who was once hailed as a prodigy, and has now hit rock bottom, and a young aspiring musician. At its heart, the play explores the ideologies surrounding friendship, music and success.
A Pupil stars Lucy Sheen, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Melanie Marshall and Carolyn Backhouse and is directed by Jessica Daniels (Resident Director – Girl From The North Country and Director of Pinch Punch at The Old Vic), with live original compositions by Colin Sell (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, BBC Radio 4).
In a dilapidated North London bedsit, disgraced violinist Ye is preparing to end her life. The surprise arrival of Simona, an aspiring musician and wealthy heiress throws her plans into disarray. Together the pair embark on a series of lessons that will test the limits of friendship, music and success.
Venue: Park 90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
Dates: 31 Oct – 24 Nov 2018
Press night: Monday 5th November 7pm
Performances: Mon – Sat Evenings 7.45pm, Thu & Sat Matinees 3.15pm
Age Guidance: 14+