Tom Kempinski’s two-hander Duet for One made a return to the West End for the first time in nearly 30 years this week, transferring from the Almeida Theatre to the Vaudeville replete with its powerhouse, Olivier-garlanded cast of Henry Goodman and Juliet Stevenson (See 1st Night Photos, 13 May 2009).

In the two-hander, Stevenson is celebrated concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she consults psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, played by Goodman, whose probing questions delve deep her complex personality and force her to consider a future without music.

Inspired by the real-life story of Jacqueline du Pre, Duet for One premiered in 1980 at the Bush, where Frances de la Tour and David Keyser starred, before transferring to the West End and Broadway. The 1986 Hollywood film starred Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow. This new revival is directed by Matthew Lloyd and designed by Lez Brotherston.

Not all the major critics made the trip to the Vaudeville, having covered the Almeida opening back in January, but most of those who did were impressed with what they saw. Evening Standard newcomer Henry Hitchings praised the “lovingly conceived” revival, while The Times' Dominic Maxwell, awarding five stars, heralded the play a “masterpiece”. Not all were in agreement – Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, returning having reviewed at the Almeida, concluded “this is not a play that rewards a second viewing”. But despite this he, like most of his colleagues, appreciated Stevenson's “bravura performance” and Goodman's “expert support”.

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  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “Transferring from the Almeida to the Vaudeville, Matthew Lloyd’s revival of Tom Kempinski’s 1980 two-hander has edged more clearly to becoming a love story between a taciturn Jewish doctor and his vibrant, frustrated patient, confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis … The play is held together by Stevenson’s bravura performance - or, rather, the play is Stevenson’s bravura performance - and Goodman nods, grunts and low moans, in expert support. But this is not a play that rewards a second viewing, nor does its theatrical dynamic increase in direct proportion to its somewhat static minimalism. It’s finally a small fringe play from a distant era that has lost something of its direct, personal application.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Matthew Lloyd’s revival of this early Eighties success has been lovingly conceived. Lez Brotherston’s design is richly imagined and the production bubbles with piquant details: the descent of Stephanie’s wardrobe from buttock-hugging Armani to frumpy cast-offs a perfectly calibrated index of her mood … Stevenson as the karmically challenged Stephanie is the evening’s star. Her performance is nuanced, unsentimental and affecting. As a dissection of the redemptive powers of music (and of therapy), Duet for One is not wholly credible but as a platform for a protean actor at the height of her powers it works stunningly.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (five stars) - “If a show as intelligent, witty, inspiring, dynamic and affecting as this can’t thrive, we might as well admit that the straight play is just a blast from the past and all go ten-pin bowling instead. Duet for One is played to perfection by its cast of Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman … Tom Kempinski’s play is a masterpiece, whoever inspired it … Though it’s two and a half hours of two people sitting talking, Lloyd’s production is no radio play. Lez Brotherston’s design makes you feel as if you are sitting in a tasteful North London study. And the body language is so specific that you could follow the undulations of these six therapy sessions with your fingers in your ears.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (reviewed at Almeida) - “Duet for One bowled me over … This is a noble and deeply moving piece of theatre, blessed with wit, insight and a refusal merely to wallow in misfortune and let the audience have a good cry … It is like watching a game of cat and mouse with one big difference – the cat-psychiatrist desperately wants the suicidal mouse to live. I have sometimes accused Stevenson of overdoing the snot and tears during her more anguished performances but she is superb here ... There isn't a single moment that feels false or overplayed, and the performance is all the more powerful for its restraint and palpable intelligence. Henry Goodman, like most shrinks, has little to say, but he creates a highly sympathetic, wise and comic character out of almost nothing.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars – reviewed at Almeida) - “First seen in 1980, Tom Kempinski's two-hander about a famous violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis and her watchful analyst moved me far more on a second viewing … But it is also because, in Matthew Lloyd's fine revival, there is a perfect balance between the superb performances of Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman … It is the strength of Goodman's analyst that makes the play a genuine contest. At first, he is all brooding silence, arched eyebrows and expressive shrugs as he listens to Stephanie's defensive prattle. But there is a steely anger when he finally turns on her and tries to wean her from the slippery temptations of suicide … These are two actors at the top of their game … Punctuated by the exquisite sounds of a Bach partita, this is a riveting evening.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet