Reviewed – 5th November 2018
“Flora Spencer-Longhurst, as Simona, is a real theatrical force”
We are in a run-down bedsit, somewhere in London. Half empty whisky bottles compete with discarded manuscript papers for floor space, and swathes of broken violins hang from the rafters. Just as broken is Ye; a former child prodigy. A virtuoso violinist. A victim of a near-fatal car crash that has left her in a wheel chair. A victim of her own jaded view of her success.
The publicity blurb describes this character as suicidal, but Lucy Sheen’s portrayal of Ye yields many, many more dimensions than that. Her deadpan misanthropy, perfectly nuanced, immediately tells the audience that there is a painful backstory here. Yet writer, Jesse Briton, does not allow for any self-pitying clichés in her well-toned script that pitches sharp comedy in perfect harmony with the flattened dreams of its protagonist.
In walks Simona, the spoilt daughter of a Russian billionaire, who has reluctantly been sent by her father for violin lessons. Like cats with bristled tails they are both on the defensive and, more so, the offensive. But forced into this unlikely allegiance, the pair embark on a journey that sees them chip away at each other until some harsher lessons are learnt.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst, as Simona, is a real theatrical force. She manages to transform the character’s teenage spoilt brat into one of fierce independence with a passion for understanding. She starts out breaking a violin and ends up breaking our hearts.
At the heart of A Pupil is the nature of friendship and the conflict of what constitutes success, both in musical and material terms. In a poignant scene Ye explains to her protégé that a priceless violin is worthless in itself. In parallel she concludes her childhood friend Phyllida’s (Carolyn Backhouse) musical success is equally lacking in value because the integrity is missing. Backhouse’s strong and assuredly cool performance gives the counter argument. What good is Ye’s own virtuosity if she can’t pay the rent? The audience is left to make up its own mind.
Yet the strength of Jessica Daniels’ production lies in the fact we are never aware that these ideologies are being explored. It is a very human story underscored with love. Love that is tested to its limits so that the strings are always in danger of snapping. What saves it are the brilliantly staccato notes of humour. The teenage Simona, who cannot read music, interprets the ‘sharp’ symbol on a manuscript as ‘hashtag’. And there’s a show stealing performance from Melanie Marshall as Mary, the long-suffering landlady perpetually chanting the hymn “Lord of the Dance”, while hilariously chastising all around her with a down to earth no-nonsense reasoning.
I’ve been reluctant to draw attention to it until now, as it seems fairer to leave it as a surprise, but I feel I cannot avoid mentioning the live music – a mixture of classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Spencer-Longhurst’s musicianship is a revelation. “If you have the ability to move other people, there’s nothing else that really compares” she recently said in an interview.
Maybe that is the true nature of success, in which case this production wins all round. Despite a slightly undetermined ending A Pupil is a heartfelt portrayal of discordant souls looking for that resolution from dissonance to consonance.
“They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that’ll never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me:
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.”
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Meurig Marshall
Park Theatre until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: