Duet for One, by far Tom Kempinski’s most successful play, premiered in 1980, picked up major awards, was filmed with Julie Andrews, was frequently revived and achieved international fame, including a record-breaking year-long run in Paris. Remarkable, therefore, that in 32 years I had never seen it before Calibre Productions brought it to the Stephen Joseph Theatre – and even more remarkable that I’m not sure it’s a very good play, though, in the face of three decades of critical and audience approval, I could well be wrong!
Duet for One is the play that is famously based on the sad case of Jacqueline Du Pre, the young, internationally renowned cellist who developed Multiple Sclerosis and died at age 42, by coincidence the age of Stephanie Abrahams, the protagonist of the play. She is a violinist, the play echoing Du Pre’s life in making her husband a composer/pianist (Du Pre’s husband was conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim). Stephanie wheels her way in to Doctor Feldmann (in a wheelchair, but with motor skills still operative and self-image intact) to go through a series of consultations to isolate the cause of her depression and make a life for her.
I may be unduly sentimental, but the fact that, at most stages except the periodic breakdowns, Stephanie is profoundly unpleasant seems to me a drawback, though this may reflect personality changes that apparently affected Du Pre (who, incidentally, was still alive when the play and film first appeared – I have no idea of her reaction!). Certainly I welcomed the normally urbane Dr. Feldmann’s unexpected attack on her for “playing silly buggers”! This extended speech of Dr. Feldmann, incidentally, leads to an admirably poised final scene, with no glib answers.
If I am in a minority of Duet for One sceptics, I can at least praise Robin Herford’s production. William Gaunt, hesitantly urbane, kindly, but with his own agenda to pursue, is a sympathetic Dr. Feldmann. Haydn Gwynne’s Stephanie Abrahams is dramatically convincing in all the phases of character that Kempinski visits on her, a highly accomplished and intelligent performance. Herford, an old Scarborough hand, adapts his touring production effectively to theatre in the round, though a two-hander between a man mostly behind a desk and a woman in a wheel chair does produce too many backs-of-heads sequences. Michael Holt’s designs are no doubt depleted at Scarborough, but the furniture exudes restrained opulence and Stephanie’s costume changes mirror her moods without over-statement.