Strong performances from Lucy Sheen and Flora Spencer-Longhurst make Jesse Briton’s A Pupil an interesting watch at the Park Theatre
“No instrument is more important than the player”
What price genius? We’re often subjected to portrayals of (usually male) creative masterminds that pay little mind to the havoc wrought in the name of their chosen subject. So it is instructive to see the script flipped a bit by Jesse Briton with his new play A Pupil. From its opening moments as former violinist Ye lines up the bottles of pills and whiskey she hopes will end her life, there’s little sugercoating of the weight that talent can bring to bear.
It wasn’t always thus, and it needn’t continue to be. Ye’s involvement in a car crash left her physically incapacitated but she’s slowly mending with the help of landlady Mary. And former colleague Phyllida has lined up a tutoring job for her, helping to prepare the daughter of a Russian oligarch for an audition to the Royal Conservatoire where she teaches. But is talent something that can be nurtured, whether by individuals or by institutions, and is it ever really worth it?
Briton’s characterisations have an intriguing edge to them which elevates A Pupil beyond your average treatise on the value of art and artists. Lucy Sheen’s Ye is wracked by depression and doubt even as she is encouraging her new charge to express herself fully. And though Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Simona displays an extraordinary musical gift, she’s still a brattish teenager with real issues. With people like this, the healing power of music might not be enough.
Briton’s writing raises questions aplenty, nibbling away at our preconceived ideas about how things are meant to go with troubled geniuses, and even introduces a note of terrifying desperation in there. And he gives little away – you feel could take another 90 minutes filling in Ye’s fascinating backstory of which we learn scant details. Melanie Marshall deserves plaudits aplenty for fleshing out the sorely underwritten role of the gorgeously sonorous landlady.
And though Jessica Daniels’ production is intelligently designed by Jessica Staton with its numerous violins strung up high and gracefully lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, the choice to set it in the round poses challenges she does not meet with a too-static staging. Spencer-Longhurst’s excellent live violin playing of Colin Sells’ compositions add an interesting texture to the play however, and the cumulative result is certainly thought-provoking.