Review: The Lesson

5 star rating
A hugely shocking, yet immensely humorous classic, The Lesson is still a relevant and robust warning about language and power, here given a first-class, riveting revival.
The Lesson at Hope Theatre

Image: Hope Theatre

Theatre: Hope Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 13 October 2018

Eugène Ionesco, translated by Donald Watson

Matthew Parker


The Maid - Joan Potter

The Pupil - Sheetal Kapoor

The Professor - Roger Alborough


"Note this carefully, and remember it 'till the day you die …"

When an enthusiastic young student arrives at The Professor's house for her lesson, she is wide-eyed and ready to learn.

But no amount of studying can prepare her for the odyssey that lies ahead.


This unflinching and dreamlike comedy-drama bursts on to The Hope Theatre stage this autumn under the direction of its award-winning Artistic Director, Matthew Parker.

More than 50 years since its UK premiere, Eugene Ionesco's dark comic-drama still packs one hell of a punch.

The French playwright's radical views on education, life and death are laced through this funny, disturbing and gripping look at the tyrannical nature of power, the dangers of enforced education and how words can be used as weapons.

With broad comedy jutting up against scenes of horror, The Lesson is a theatrical experience you will never forget.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 27 September 2018
Review star rating image

Like many parents, a relative is currently sending her son to private tuition to brush-up on various subjects in preparation for some gruelling exam or other.

She would be mortified to consider that her offspring might be subjected to the kind of nightmarish lesson currently being served-up nightly at Islington's Hope Theatre!

First performed in 1951, Eugène Ionesco's The Lesson is a one act, absurdist, three-hander that is simultaneously both hugely shocking and immensely humorous.

So much so that the audience here seemed divided between those who could not laugh at all, and those who found much of it hilarious - it's probably not such an unusual reaction to this play.

As we file in to take our seats, Joan Potter's commendably dutiful maid is sprucing-up the professor's study, cleaning the table with a disinfectant-like spray - little do we know the real significance of this until we find her undertaking the very same task at the play's conclusion.

Roger Alborough (The Professor) and Sheetal Kapoor (The Pupil) in The Lesson at the Hope Theatre

Roger Alborough (The Professor) and Sheetal Kapoor (The Pupil) - photo by LH Photography

Roger Alborough's professor is suitably sage-like, savant and scholarly.

He could be one's uncle, or maybe a priest, or a wise philosopher, or possibly even a much-loved elder statesman.

But he's also an incredibly dangerous man whose maniacal rantings about philology kick-start an inner rage that is dissipated only after tragic and bloody consequences.

Sheetal Kapoor is his latest, naive but enthusiastic pupil whose parents want her to secure a doctorate - or, rather, a whole rainbow of doctorates.

And the (initially) polite and helpful professor is more than anxious to assist in her academic endeavours.

However, his examination of the current state of her knowledge is pitched at a level that is rudimentary to say the least.

He finds that she can add simple numbers - 1 + 1, for example - but cannot for the life of her latch-on to the principles of subtraction, even if she can multiply mind-boggingly large numbers.

Leaving behind numeracy and arithmetic, the professor drifts into the territory of philology - the study of the relationships between languages - and that signals impending doom in the eyes of his skittish maid, who recognises all too readily where the professor is heading.

In designer Rachael Ryan's description of the professor's study, the walls are adorned with all manner of detailed mathematical formulas - written in what looks like chalk and which must have taken an age to effect.

The Hope Theatre's artistic director, Matthew Parker, directs a first-class and well-cast revival of this theatrical masterpiece, treading with meticulous poise and confidence the fine line required to juxtapose the absurd, the horrific and the comic elements this unsettling piece contains.

There's delightful, almost child-like repetitive music bracketing the play - a tune I couldn't get out of my mind for hours afterwards - yet it's counterbalanced with Simon Arrowsmith's more macabre soundscape as the professor's demeanour transforms.

Joan Potter provides excellent support as the knowing and, later, painfully tearful maid who has to clear-up after her deranged employer.

Sheetal Kapoor also finds the right tone to describe a naive young girl, anxious to please, yet doomed from the moment she enters her tutor's study.

And Roger Alborough delivers an emotionally exhausting portrayal, transitioning from considerate teacher into terrifying demented maniac, and then morphing back to an infant-like state of denial after his crazed fury is spent.

Roger Alborough as The Professor in The Lesson at the Hope Theatre

Roger Alborough as The Professor - photo by LH Photography

You can't leave The Lesson either unmoved or unchanged.

It's a warning about power - the power of language, the power of extreme politics - and how we as citizens may involuntarily conspire in our own demise.

In that sense - given the trends of our time - it's a warning we need to heed, now perhaps more than ever.

And this top-notch, riveting revival more than does justice to Ionesco's astonishingly disturbing, yet potent work.

Highly recommended.

Update - 2 October 2018:

We've learned that this production has received 4 Offie Award Nominations for:

Best director: Matthew Parker

Best supporting female in a play: Joan Potter

Best lighting: Chris McDonnell

Best sound: Simon Arrowsmith

Congratulations to all!

Sally Redman
Saturday 29 September 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars

As a big fan of the Hope Theatre ('the little theatre with big ideas') I was looking forward to Eugeune Ionesco's 'The Lesson' and it did not disappoint.

Matthew Parker's production is a great mixture of the witty, thrilling and almost worrying.

For a play written over 65 years ago the messages and themes still have currency - themes of power and influence, and how someone can impose themselves on the psyche of another, are very relevant today and stand as a potential warning.

The Lesson tells the tale of a brilliant but flawed student and her relationship with her charming yet dangerous tutor.

Both Sheetal Kapoor and Roger Alborough shine in their roles.

Ms Kapoor is immensely watchable without ever being overbearing, a recognisable approach from director Matthew Parker, similar in style and execution to the role of a dog in his last play.

Roger Alborough is equally thrilling and mesmerising - one moment I found myself laughing out loud to then be shocked and almost angered by him the next.

That said, the performance of the show goes to Joan Potter who plays the maid and proves there are no little parts in the theatre.

Ms Potter executes a very demanding and difficult role, which for me was the icing on a very funny, yet thought-provoking cake.

Matthew Parker's production is wonderful, with the director getting the most from his cast and the space as we are taken on a whirlwind ride. 

The play is billed as absurdist, which I can fully understand.

However, the relationships between the characters and the actors' performances make the play feel worryingly real and at times painfully funny.

One thing The Lesson taught me is that some classics, when done well, still have a very important part to play in today's society.

And, as a footnote, it is very entertaining.

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