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THE LESSON – Hen and Chickens, London.

The LessonThe work of the late Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco is one hallmarked by insistent non sequiturs and avant-garde flourishes. It is therefore no surprise that in keeping with this principle much of his oeuvre is something of an acquired taste; sweet to some and sour to others.

For the uninitiated, this is no less the case in his early short play The Lesson. Often referred to as a key piece in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ canon of the 50s and 60s, the premise is simple; a pupil attends a private lesson laid on by a teacher. From the teacher’s perspective, what begins as gentle support gives way to barely containable contempt and frustration as their time together ratchets up minutes on the clock. Sensing the shift in the atmosphere, the pupil begins to suffer a toothache. Both her concentration and her pliancy deteriorate. Is her descent from rapt attention to distracted agony a fate worse than death?

Sometimes simplicity is the key to seduction. A drama can often hit hardest under the unflinching neutrality of a barren space; one that does not have to compete with peripheral staging gimmicks threatening to pull attention away from the bubbling collision course that two or more characters face. It is certainly the case here. It is to show’s credit. Also for the ‘plus’ column is the fact that the material eschews the common convention of a lecherous teacher preying on a vulnerable student for sexual gratification.

The performances are unquestionably striking. Elena Clements – the pupil – and Darren Ruston – the professor – are equally compelling, offering one another the perfect counterpoint as demanded by the narrative. Innocence and knowledge; desire and rage – all of the impulsive and potentially destructive vagaries of human nature present themselves in the course of an hour.

That said; it is not all plain sailing. The faults in Ionesco’s script are easy to levy. It is frequently flippant and limp. Such is the efficacy of the performances billowing from the stage that their energy propels The Lesson with a momentum that is flattering to the source. It is their potent execution that elevates the work. After all, there is a shallow, hollow heart underneath the refinery in this play.

Whilst The Lesson is more of a miss than a hit, there is real talent in this cast and, moving forward, that’s the most instructive facet of this outing. For Ruston, Clements et al it is onwards and most definitely upwards from here.

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Reviewed 12/03/2015

By Greg Wetherall

Until 13th March 2015
Hen & Chickens Theatre, London, N1.

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