This production asks whether genius can be taught. The real question is what is genius and is it genius if it can be so easily mimicked.
In Jesse Briton’s A Pupil, Lucy Sheen stars as Ye, a disgraced violinist who after an accident is on the verge of ending it all. She no longer plays and seemingly has nothing to live for until Simona (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), a Russian billionaire’s daughter with no musical training and ear for music, like a violin Little Voice comes into her life via her old classmate, friend and at times rival Phyllidia played by Carolyn Backhouse.
Simona fights against her father’s desire to see her attend a fine music school and her own relationship with music as Ye and Phyllidia are the angel and devil on her shoulder. Ye, burnt out by her success and talent tells her to avoid the formal music route and Phyllidia who despite her mediocre talent has found a successful career in the school and wants Simona and the money her father brings to benefit the school.
It is an odd production I applaud the casting of Sheen whose hard exterior cannot contain her broken body and soul but the lack of background about Ye was incredibly disappointing. The immigrant story of a child protege brought over to a new country only to throw that opportunity away is fascinating and not presented here. We never find out what burned her out, there is no real sense of time and place and it distracts from some strong performances from Sheen and Backhouse as the steely frenemy who rejoices in the fact she is living a better life than her former classmate but knows she never had the talent to deserve it.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst skilled violin playing is entertaining and the play would be lacking without it but do we need to hear so much of it at the expense of a story. I felt for Melanie Marshall, a great comic actress lumbered with a secondary character who provides no benefit except to chastise Ye and it feels at odds with the classy performances of Sheen, Spencer-Longhurst and Backhouse. Britton’s writing is so focused on a weak story about that it fails to develop the characters backstories. Character and story go hand in hand and the music is a distraction from a story that feels like it is in its first draft. I think there is a good play about relationships, women and music amongst this but this felt like it had been written for 4 men and hastily adapted without considering the issues Ye would have faced as a Chinese woman in a foreign land.
The deconstructed violin set from Jessica Stanton is strong but I am not sure if Jessica Daniel’s direction is suited to in the round, much was missed by the audience and a play about classical music deserves classical staging and a better understanding of characters.
A Pupil is on at Park Theatre https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-pupil/about