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Duet for One

Music Dr Feldmann is the purest expression of humanity there is.— Stephanie Abrahams
 Duet for One
Juliet Stevenson as Stephanie
(Photo: John Haynes)
Tom Kempinski's play directed by Matthew Lloyd is revived at the Almeida Theatre with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman. The two hander explores the uncomfortable subject of the often slowly degenerative disease Multiple Sclerosis. Written in the days before elective and assisted suicide were topical, Tom Kempinski explores the reaction of a talented musician to a disease which means that she can no longer express her musicality. Inspired by the life of the extraordinary cellist, Jacqueline du Pré who died of MS, Tom Kempinski has based his play around the therapeutic sessions that the violinist played by Juliet Stevenson has with her psychiatrist Dr Feldmann (Henry Goodman).

Shirley Safran documented the stages of the play very well in her review of a production of the play in the Bekshires ( click here to read). What the Almeida production has done is to attract a star actor in Juliet Stevenson with her impressive range to the role. Her character initially pretends self sufficiency and coping, making jokes to which Dr Feldmann refuses to react. In fact he reacts to very little, although with a view in the First Act just of the back of his head, I could only sense his lack of motion rather than emotion. It is only later that his patient starts to come apart, physically not as well turned out, less makeup, her hair not in place that we realise that this change to her appearance reflects her despair. She starts to show her anger and Dr Feldmann makes her address the issues of her childhood. Towards the end of the play he explains what he understands by the meaning of life as Stephanie struggles with this cruellest of debilitating diseases.

There is much to laugh at in the first acts as the doctor doggedly goes about his business of uncovering the cracks, the areas Miss Abrahams refuses to look at from her childhood and within her marriage. He is quite challenging to hold a conversation with, inscrutable for the most part but interrupting with almost aggressive, certainly unsympathetic Freudian questions like "Do you always do what your husband says?" Goodman's beady black eyes don't betray what he is thinking. Proficient as his performance is, Goodman is a foil for the altogether more showy part played by Juliet Stevenson. Stephanie evinces sympathy for her double loss, of her marriage and her music. Anger takes over from her civilised demeanour and eventually she is persuaded to talk about the struggle she made to start a career in music after the death of her mother and with the opposition of her father. Interestingly as she talks about her father, Stephanie uses a different, less cultured accent to show her father's working class origins.

Dr Feldmann's affluent consulting room has shelves lined with more tapes and cds than books and through the window we can see a walled garden. Stephanie Abrahams arrives in a wheelchair. When she struggles to her feet, we see how hard it is for her to walk and she falls over demonstrating her physical instability. We are at the most moved when she says she gave away her violin but know that this acceptance of her disease, of never playing again is important. Of course most professional violinists' violins are worth more than their house, so parted with is more likely than gave away.

Peculiarly enough, the newspaper headline the day after I saw Duet for One was of a potential cure for MS. Let us hope so.

Duet for One
Written by Tom Kempinski
Directed by Matthew Lloyd

Starring: Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 14th March 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th January 2009 performance at the Ameida, Almeida Street, London N1 (Tube: Angel, Islington)
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