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The Lesson
The Hope Theatre
29th September 2018

★★★★☆

Roger Alborough and Sheetal Kapoor as the Professor and the Pupil

Photography © LHPhotoshots

As a critic, writing about The Lesson is an almost impossible task. Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play is, amongst other things, an attack on superfluous words that take up a lot of time and space, without ever really meaning anything. The irony is not lost on me, as much as I would hope to offer something vaguely insightful from time to time. Let me get straight to the point then: Matthew Parker's latest production is superb. Using Donald Watson's translation, his adaptation of The Lesson captures the brilliant subtleties of Ionesco's writings, culminating in a violent and beautifully bizarre conclusion.

When the Pupil (Sheetal Kapoor) arrives for a simple lesson with the Professor (Roger Alborough), she hopes to improve her grasp of mathematics and language. Initially delighted, then rapidly frustrated, the Professor's lesson planning skills leave something to be desired as he leaps from mental addition to, er, more practical applications. His faithful employee, the maid (Joan Potter) pleads with him to pace himself better and tackle less complicated subject matters, but he is determined to teach the Pupil, regardless of the toll it may exact on any of them.

Kapoor is wonderfully exuberant, brimming with childlike innocence and a thirst for learning, complemented with a pinafore and braid. The shocking end, which she then makes disturbingly realistic, is a real testament to her versatility. Whilst Alborough's portrayal is initially quite benign, there is a sinister undertone woven into his performance from the very beginning, which escalates into full-blown crazy as we career towards the end of the 70 minutes. Potter may not have the stage for long, but she is an important player, with her character's own frustration at being unheeded creating some moments of wicked humour that cut through the tension like a knife - be it a figurative knife or a real one.

The stage is raised from the ground, which both presents challenges for the front row and aids those further back. It's a compromise rather than a perfect solution, and perhaps what cheats Parker of that fifth star. Similarly, staging it in the round - practically a necessity to ensure a big enough audience at the intimate Hope get to experience the show - does make for some rather long periods of looking at the back of someone. Thankfully, this is mitigated as best as possible through periodic shifts in position, not to mention good voice projection.

Rachael Ryan's clinically monochrome design features sharp lines on the floor that hint at floor tiles and graph paper. Equations and words surround us, chalk white on a black background, evoking suggestions of a very brainy scholar having committed some of his dazzling superior intellect into deeply meaningful scribbles. When you look more closely, what we really see are quotes from the nonsensical lines used in the play (written in the original language, which is a nice nod to the playwright). First appearances apparently aren't everything.

Changes in the lighting and soundscape are made unobtrusively, building and building until we suddenly realise just how oppressive and repugnant the setting has become. Whilst the actors put on the deliberately overworked, highly physical performance that an absurdist piece demands, Chris McDonnell and Simon Arrowsmith shift the environment in a much less conspicuous fashion, the sound barely noticeable at first. Suddenly, some way into the play, we find ourselves trapped in a truly gruesome situation that bears no resemblance to the opening scenes. It'ds something akin to the frog-in-a-kettle analogy - you don't notice it heating up until it's too late - and it's done to extraordinary effect.

You may not sharpen your mental arithmetic or foreign language skills as a result of your attendance, but The Lesson will teach you that a little theatre with big ideas is something to rave about. Although the way in which Ionesco dissects language is at the heart of this production, there are other layers to acknowledge and peel back, with a pleasing balance struck rather than it becoming overly politically charged and overwhelming. I can't remember the last time I saw Ionesco's work on stage and enjoyed it even half as much as this - Parker's obvious affection for the playwright has really translated The Lesson into a thoughtfully staged, accessible and highly accomplished production.

The Lesson opened on 25th September and runs until 13th October 2018 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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