Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Lesson' at The Drayton Arms, 22nd September 2015

Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson is a tremendous feat of writing. A key piece in the postwar 'Theatre of the Absurd', it's about a Professor giving an extended lesson to a bright-eyed young pupil. Other than the occasional intervention of the Professor's maid the entire play consists of this lecture, which grows increasingly bizarre. Covering arithmetic and philology, the Professor's tangled explanations and theorising quickly becomes a thicket of brain-numbing non-sequiturs and ludicrous pronouncements - all presented with rock-sold authoritarian confidence.

It's an excellent choice for a fringe production: reliant on dialogue rather than whizz-bangery and with malleable enough edges to allow for creative production design. First impressions are excellent, this is a visually striking set made a bedraggled carpet with test-tubes of dry paint suspended from the ceiling. Fishing line demarcates the boundaries of the stage, causing little silvery lines to flit in and out of view as the air moves around the room. Staged in the round, the set feels a bit like a boxing ring - entirely appropriate given the adversarial nature of the play. Designers Audrey Guo, Frances Jialu Chen and Tan Hua should be proud of themselves.

Similar levels of quality are found in Kelly Blaze's squeakily vulnerable pupil. Brimming over with eager nervous energy, she manipulates the audience with Shirley Temple cuteness layered with subtly dark strands. Her initial interactions with the Professor feel like Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf: innocence versus predatory hunger. As the play progresses the character becomes increasingly uncomfortable - suffering a painful toothache that eventually envelopes her body. In straightforward performative terms, Blaze sells the hell out this - running through 30ish minutes of agonised wriggling with ease.

All of the above is ace and would ordinarily comprise the bedrock of an excellent piece of fringe theatre. Sadly this is not to be, as this production of The Lesson is entirely ruined by one element: Toby Osmond's Professor. 

First thing's first: he kept forgetting his lines. Now I'll give a tiny bit of leeway on this, the Professor role in The Lesson has the vast majority of the dialogue to the point where the play is essentially one long monologue. On top of that, it's a Byzantine, repetitive monologue that constantly loops around itself. Then again, Osmond is a professional, trained actor and learning complex parts is, y'know, his job. 

Anyway, I can forgive the occasional memory misfire - it happens to the best - but seven or eight in one performance? Not helping at all is that rather than working around the problem and improvising until he picks up the thread (which Ionescu's style of dialogue gives you scope to do) he pauses, breaks character and tetchily shouts "Line?" at the stage manager. This is an intense piece of drama made of subtle rhythms and mounting tension - all spoiled by these constant gaffes.

But even when he remembers his lines Osmond is terrible. Wooden as all hell, he recites rather than performs the role, not sounding remotely convinced of anything he's saying. This is the key to the Professor's character -  delivering stentorian gobbledegook as if it's the most obvious thing in the world, and it's utterly bungled. 

There's also zero tonal progression to his performance. The dramatic curve of the play is such that, at least in the first few interactions between Professor and pupil, this could be a vaguely naturalistic bit of teaching. Ideally, as the drama ramps up and the pupil's grows ever more distressed, the Professor role should dovetail with it - growing monstrous as she shrinks in fear. Osmond doesn't do this, from minute one locking into a single tone, style of delivery and set of mannerisms that he maintains without change for the duration. It's a sad indictment of a performance when the closest an actor comes to communicating character development is taking his shirt off.

This production feels designed to impress. The creative team are all recent graduates from China now working in London and it's clear that no small amount of their blood and sweat have been poured into The Lesson. Similarly, the performances of Kelly Blaze and Roslyn Hill's (even in a minor role) are easily to the standard of the London stage. Toby Osmond's isn't: he's not only unprepared but unable to perform this role to a satisfactory degree and singlehandedly ruins what would otherwise have been a decent show.


The Lesson is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until the 26th of September. Tickets here.

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