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Duet for One

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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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.

But the enigma of their relationship, and the great holes in our knowledge of the doctor – how “put on”, really, is his German accent, where is his family, why is his study done up like the Freud museum in Hampstead? – do not make for dramatic complexity but a sense of incompleteness.

And dramatically, the show is one way traffic as Juliet Stevenson’s needy and despairing musician, a concert violinist cut down in her prime, recounts her growing irritability (yes, she does become rather annoying after a while), her sexual frustration, her lurch towards suicidal determination.

We’re also never sure what kind of doctor Feldmann actually is. He prescribes pills and he listens a lot, but he doesn’t “do” psychoanalysis. He listens to music and looks at the trees through his window and he says it’s important that Stephanie should discover her true feelings.

But he’s thrown when she does, and in the one big response to her plight, he pours out a speech about the purpose of life and the fact that there is more than one apple on the branch of experience. At which point, Stevenson launches into a somewhat over-graphic account of her affair with a scrap metal collector who treats her sexually like a sack of potatoes.

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.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from 30 January 2009, when this production premiered at the Almeida Theatre

Stephanie Abrahams is a 42 year-old violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis who embarks on a series of therapy sessions with a German psychiatrist, Dr Feldmann, in his comfortable consulting room.

The bookshelves in Lez Brotherston’s design are stuffed with cassette tapes and vinyl records, reminding us that Tom Kempinski’s play dates from 1980, though references to spread sheets and a laptop suggest we have moved on by ten years at least. Matthew Lloyd’s revival, beautifully acted by Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, suggests that life without music would be unthinkable even if you’re cruelly rendered incapable of playing it.

This is the conclusion that Stevenson’s Stephanie comes to in a painful process of self revelation that takes her to the brink of suicide, the break up of her marriage (to a fellow musician whose compositions – “post modern gibberish” -- she can no longer tolerate) and her frustration at having to teach students much less talented than herself. “I gave my violin away yesterday,” is the heart-breaking line that signals a fresh start.

Stevenson floats around the stage in her wheelchair, playfully ramming into Feldmann as if riding a dodgem car. It is a splendid illusion that while Goodman’s Feldmann is quietly immobile and rock solid, Stevenson’s Stephanie is mercurial and moody, zipping off between scenes to complete costume changes that must take an awful lot of jumping around.

Suitably enough, both actors find delightful music in the play, which is punctuated with powerful snatches of a Bach violin sonata. The daughter of a concert pianist and a sweet manufacturer, Stephanie’s meteoric rise to fame is perhaps more convincingly registered than her second act falling apart; there’s even a suspicion that her account of rough sex with a scrap metal merchant may be a fantasy symptom of her distress.

Originally, the play conjured the tragedy of the similarly debilitated English cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who was married to the conductor Daniel Barenboim, and who died in 1987. But Kempinski himself had trained as a cellist before becoming an actor and talked openly at the time of his agoraphobia, depressions and obesity; his then wife Frances de la Tour played Stephanie.

Now seventy, happily recovered and still writing, Kempinski is best remembered for this play and this production does it full justice. Stevenson’s attack and variety of expression is a constant joy, while Goodman makes a great deal of the little we learn about the doctor.

-Michael Coveney


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