Valiant performances and an interesting, expressionist design are not quite enough to elevate A Pupil‘s lethargic writing.
Lucy Sheen wheels on to stage as Ye, an utterly dejected former musical prodigy. Ye occupies a sparse bedsit that’s littered with various bottles of alcohol, discarded music sheets and rubbish that has accumulated over what seems like months. The audience is sat in the round and doorways are marked out with string falling from the ceiling. When we look up, we see an array of violins suspended in mid-air – all in differing states of disrepair.
To this end, designer Jessica Staton has done a fantastic job of creating a set that is expressionist in style. It augments the feeling that Ye is consumed by the violin, no matter how much she attempts to repress it. Lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun also succeeds in creating a stark atmosphere. However, director Jessica Daniels fails to elevate the space that the characters occupy – in that actors aren’t angled in a way for everyone to see them. For much of the dialogue exchanged throughout the performance, actors will actually remain static – thus depriving chunks of us of a good view. Quite plainly, any magic created by the set is immediately dispelled by A Pupil‘s somewhat inconsiderate staging.
Lucy Sheen is fantastic at portraying the morose side of Ye. She has formidable stage presence and fully embraces Ye’s dark humour. It is enjoyable watching her rail against Mary’s (Melanie Marshall) naïve optimism. However, Sheen revels too much in Ye’s dark temperament and doesn’t bring as much variation to her performance as she could. It is clear that she’s capable of bringing more emotional complexity to her performance but it is almost as if she’s holding back.
Florence Spencer-Longhurst has a beautiful vulnerability as Simona, but struggles with her volatility. Often, her character falls into outbursts that haven’t quite been emotionally earned – and the occasional scene will descend into a shouting fit with Ye. The moment she smashes a violin feels gratuitous even though it’s fun to watch, precisely because there has been no real momentum leading up to it. Additionally, her Russian accent is hard to believe and borders on stereotypical. She does, however, manage to convey the sheer weight of Simona’s devastation towards the end of the performance.
Ultimately, it is hard to fully invest in Ye and Simona’s relationship because it lacks the nuance Jesse Briton so desperately tries to portray. One can’t help but draw comparisons to Whiplash but here, the relationship between pupil and teacher isn’t as charged. Every actor makes a valiant effort to bring a more three-dimensional aspect to their character, but no one can quite flesh out the archetypes they have been handed. The fault lies not with them but with writing that doesn’t quite move beyond clichés. For example, when Ye says “to you music is a sound, to her, it’s a vibration”, we aren’t being presented with a deep insight into the artistry of making music. Unlike Whiplash, Briton fails to interrogate the relationship between art and pain on a deeper level and the production – aside from some compelling moments – therefore feels laboured for the most part.