Duet For One (Octagon Theatre, Bolton)

Clare Foster shines in this excellent drama.

Clare Foster in Duet For One.
Clare Foster in Duet For One.
© Ian Tilton

Advocates of the theory that the wider discussion of mental illness helps the treatment of the condition will welcome The Octagon’s revival of Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One.

Stricken by multiple sclerosis concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams (Clare Foster) can no longer practice her art. Determined to make the best of a bad situation she resolves to find meaning in life by teaching others and helping her composer husband as a secretary. Stephanie is puzzled when her analyst Doctor Feldmann (Rob Edwards) does not share her positive outlook on life and keeps asking her how she really feels about her illness.

Society is less queasy about the subject of mental illness than when the play was written in the 1980s. Although the play has been updated its initial intrigue – observing a person being stripped down to determine the origins of motivations – has dissipated due to familiarity with the technique.

It does, however, retain interest as a sort of detective story as Feldmann draws out and pieces together the history that determines Stephanie’s approach to life. The play is also notable for what is absent as much as present -no effort is made to establish a sexual tension between the characters. Furthermore, although it is possible, ultimately, to understand the characters it is sometimes difficult to actually like them.

The naturalistic tone taken by director Elizabeth Newman avoids the lazy technique of using sentiment to attract audience sympathy. Amanda Stoodley’s ultra modern set is almost clinical except that the polished wooden floor features glass panels through which memorabilia from the past can be glimpsed.

Most striking of all, however, is the performance from Clare Foster who does not hide the less pleasant aspects of Stephanie. Foster emphasises not so much the arrogance of a supreme artist as the condescension of the wealthy – with dripping conceit she asks if the doctor wants her London or Tuscan address.

Yet Foster is able to find vulnerability in an outwardly nasty character. She demonstrates the extent to which Stephanie has concealed her distress, from herself as much as others, by silently weeping throughout the play.

Foster behaves like a caged tiger. Although Stephanie is becoming less mobile from the waist down Foster bridles against her increasing immobility with the upper part of her body in constant jittery motion. It is a very physical display of mental anxiety in the face of inevitable loss.

Rob Edwards manages the difficult trick of avoiding making Doctor Feldmann just a dramatic technique – a sounding board off which Stephanie can bounce her neurosis – or a wise man with all the answers. The actor concentrates on drawing out Feldmann’s fear that his failure to cure patients could result in tragedy to bring an edge of anger even desperation to the role.

Although Duet for One may occasionally feel like a period piece, The Octagon’s concern for the characters and some fine acting ensures that its original impact is retained.

Duet For One is in repertoire with Separation is is at the Octagon until 10 May.

– Dave Cunningham