A Pupil is a not just a play, but a concert of sorts. This strings-based affair is both visually and aurally commanding in its tale of a teenage violinist being taught by an old, female, master. It sounds simple enough, but this piece has some dark, complex corners that help this story transcend bring the story alive.
Ye – played by a composed and convincing Lucy Sheen – is wheelchair bound and depressed. A former famous violin player, she has all but given up. While her landlord Mary – played by an enthusiastic Melanie Marshall – is sunny and sings hymns as much as she can. This unusual pair is the backdrop for this piece and represents the light and shade that A Pupil fluctuates between.
Both women desire to help Ye’s difficult pupil Simona – played by a lip-curling Flora Spencer-Longhurst – reach her potential, yet in different ways. Ye is the reluctant teacher, pushed into the tuition by her prim and successful former classmate, Phyllida, played confidently by Jane Asher-look-a-like Carolyn Backhouse. While Marshall’s upbeat Mary is encouraging and loving from the off.
The two women act as two halves in their differing approach, and this is reflective of the heart of this play. A Pupil is about right and wrong, success and failure, seeing positives and negatives, and manages to simplify some of the most complex emotions.
Thankfully, the violin playing is good. What could have destroyed the piece in one bow stroke, keeps A Pupil afloat. You see the collective relaxing of shoulders across the audience, and Spencer-Longhurst must be commended for her assured, and beautiful playing.
However, this piece of theatre is far from a simple teacher-pupil tale of success. Yes, the underlying thread is whether Simona will get a place at the Royal Conservatoire, but it is the journey to the final audition that captivates.
It’s a thoughtful set from designer Jessica Staton. White strings, seeming to frame the stage, bring the floor and ceiling together. While violins in various states of disrepair hang from above ominously, both a threat and something quite beautiful in their suspension.
The female energy that threads through the cast of A Pupil demonstrates the wide-ranging, indefinable experience of what it is to be a woman. Strong, weak, feminine, masculine, defensive, warm, you see the full spectrum, and I can’t help but think that that is the true success of this piece. What it is to be a woman.
A Pupil is playing Park Theatre until 24 November. For more information and tickets, click here.