Duet for One

Tom Kempinski
Almeida Theatre
(2009)

Publicity photo

The Almeida has pulled off a real coup by persuading two of the finest actors currently performing in Britain to duet together in Matthew Lloyd's revival of Tom Kempinski's thinly veiled biography of Jacqueline Du Pré, now cast as a violinist rather than a cellist.

A play about a classical musician slowly succumbing to multiple sclerosis does not sound like an uplifting night out but when Juliet Stevenson is playing Stephanie Abrahams, accompanied by Henry Goodman as her Germanic psychiatrist, one should expect tickets to appear on the Internet at heavily inflated prices.

Duet for One was first seen at the Bush Theatre almost 30 years ago and subsequently gave Julie Andrews an opportunity to play a serious screen role. It still feels absolutely fresh, partly because the text has been updated to take into account technological change during the intervening decades.

The primary attraction of this play lies not in its existential philosophising or insight into the techniques of modern psychiatry, nor the way in which it builds up the biography of a musical genius, at a time when her powers have gone and her body is rebelling.

People will come and see this play to witness a superlative actress giving one of the performances of her life as a spirited character desperately fighting against the dying of the light, while frequently raging against an overly wise psychiatrist, who can at times be intensely maddening.

This might sound as if it diminishes Henry Goodman's performance as the music loving Dr Feldmann, which is very much that of an accompanist rather than an equal partner. Much of his acting prior to the interval is channelled into conveying different qualities of silence in an attempt to provoke his patient to pour out the story of her life.

It is only towards the end that the Doctor finally throws off his professional shackles and explodes in a powerful speech that says much about why he took up his vocation and the frustrations that dealing with sick, scared people must inevitably generate. This is all the more spectacular and affecting coming from a man whose speciality is control.

The pair have a love of music in common, such that when Miss Abrahams states that "music is a kind of heaven" the man who denies that he is an analyst immediately has a visceral understanding of what she is saying.

Like a virtuoso solo violinist playing the Paganini or Goldberg Variations, Miss Stevenson moves the wheelchair-bound Stephanie Abrahams through a series of tumultuous changes. She starts with relatively quiet dignity and grace embellished by her own brand of gallows humour. This develops past a natural defensiveness into the investigation of her character's soul before anger takes over, leading to truly terrifying temper tantrums that leave the viewer drained, let alone the victim and her perceived protagonist.

Observing Lez Brotherston's intricately recreated study/consulting room, immaculately lit by Jason Taylor, it is all too easy to feel like a voyeur at a series of encounters that should be private. By the climax, one inevitably feels like an intimate of Miss Abrahams but still only a distant acquaintance of Dr Feldmann.

This is a magnificent evening out, bringing out incredible depths of inner truth and imparted self-knowledge, as well as giving at least an impression of the development and career of a concert soloist. Most of all though, it illuminates the thought processes of the kind of talent that only comes along once or twice a generation, viewed through the medium of an actress who is not too far from that calibre either.

On the basis that this run must already be sold out, there should be no question about a West End run that should last for as long as the two stars can make themselves available.

Playing until 14th March

Ben Aitken reviewed the transfer to the Vaudeville Theatre and John Johnson reiewed the touring production at Milton Keynes

Reviewer: Philip Fisher