by Rachel Beaumont

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Timeless terror: The Lesson at the Hope Theatre

The Lesson
The Hope Theatre
Hope and Anchor
Unreserved, £15
10 October 2018
Hope Theatre page

Before now I’ve only read The Lesson and seeing it live in this sound and very entertaining production in The Hope pub theatre accentuates what is both brilliant and problematic, with the latter fortunately no impediment to the former.

[Hope Theatre doesn’t list credits on their website so I’ve cribbed these from another review; apologies if I import any errors.] Rachael Ryan’s set design makes ingenious use of the tiny space: the stage is a forensic-feeling white tiled platform with plastic-covered table and chairs; the theatre’s black walls are imagined as the raving Professor’s blackboard, placing the audience within a space thick with scribbles of nonsense.

Director Matthew Parker and the strong cast make wise use of the in-the-round space, achieving the impressive feat of giving everyone a good angle without seeming to force it. Roger Alborough as the Professor, Sheetal Kapoor as the Pupil and Joan Patter as the Cleaner all not only delight in the comedic potential of their absurdist stereotypes but also gradate the shifts in tone and power dynamics with remarkable nuance, building to a climax that is completely gripping, genuinely upsetting and also hilarious.

Parker and the sound designer Simon Arrowsmith add in a few gestures that feel a touch too generic – looming sound distortions as the Professor lurches off his rocker, a sinisterly flickering light bulb as we realize the cycle is back to starting position – but perhaps these only feel generic because most of what they do is so successful. I was a particular fan of Arrowsmith’s work in the penultimate tableau, Patter cleaning the blood off the table, sobbing vilely, as a ghoulish distortion of vaguely French cafe music rages around our heads. Fun stuff.

As a production I’m not sure you could ask for more. The play itself? I think it does lack focus, laughing first at thoughtlessness, then at ambition, then at education, then at subservience, then at pomposity – all good things to laugh at but within so short a space it can’t help feeling messy. Nevertheless, it undeniably deserves its position as a classic: with acid sharpness it establishes cruelty sustained through interrelated dependencies, everyone a victim, even the most brutal, but no one then ever held to account. It’s a story that will never get old.

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