Matthew Parker's revival of The Lesson lifts Eugene Ionesco's text off the page with grace. Tom Ward reviews The Hope Theatre production:

When The Pupil (Sheetal Kapoor) arrives at The Professor’s (Roger Alborough) home in order to study for her doctorate exams, she could have no idea of the circumstances that would lead her to such a tragic end at the hands of her admired and revered teacher. And so begins The Lesson.

Lesson Hope Theatre

Sheetal Kapoor (image courtesy of LH Photography)

Eugene Ionesco is famous for his absurdist plays that use a stylised language, influencing the likes of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Director Matthew Parker’s production of one of Ionesco’s most famous plays showcases the playwright at his most vicious and playful. The Lesson is simultaneously a comical foray into the absurdity of the education system, and a tense and chilling exploration of indoctrination.

Utilising the limited space of a 50-seat theatre is always going to be difficult. Designer Rachael Ryan creates a detailed, aesthetically rich playing area while making sure not to bombard the space – intimate without seeming cramped. Chalk illustrations display objects and symbols from every school discipline as well as some home utensils that localise the world of the play. Ryan’s set is the perfect space for The Lesson to thrive.

Lesson Hope Theatre

Sheetal Kapoor & Roger Alborough (image courtesy of LH Photography)

And thrive it does. Parker’s production is led by language and rhythm first, and this detailed exploration into the play’s structure provides some dramatic direction. The Lesson feels sharp and tense at exactly the right moments, yet comical exactly where required for the biggest payoff. In a play that for predominantly consists of two people discussing maths and language, this attention to structural detail makes sure that The Lesson remains a riveting watch. At its apex is a concept that Parker builds with subtlety before concluding in a chilling, cyclical fashion.

Lesson Hope Theatre

Sheetal Kapoor (image courtesy of LH Photography)

All this is played out by a talented cast who deliver a balanced yet exaggerated performance style that rhythmically skips and bites into the layered text. How Alborough manages to recount his ‘history of language’ speech with such speed and elegance is a feat worth admiring in itself. The only time the performances tip out of balance is during the chasing and hypnotising scene, where the physical language becomes somewhat frivolous.

The creative team succeeds in taking one the Ionesco’s best loved plays and lifting it off the page with grace. The Lesson is a dramatic, concordant production, helped by the skill of its cast who clearly relish their characters’ richness and the language’s depth.

★★★★☆

The Lesson runs at The Hope Theatre until 13 October 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website here.