REVIEW: Duet For One
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Uplifting, noble, entertaining… David Cradduck reviews Duet For One – Chesil Theatre
It is difficult to understand how anyone can write with authority and credibility a play about someone suffering from multiple sclerosis without actually having experienced it themselves. For instance, what really goes through the mind of someone struck down in their prime that brings them to contemplate suicide?
But unless Tom Kempinski, creator of the 1980s award winning Duet For One had first-hand experience of MS, he must have done his research well because it is a well crafted, poignant, insight into the relationship between an MS victim and her psychiatrist as they attempt to steer a course of understanding and some kind of treatment for her mental state. Reputedly based on the life of Jacqueline Du Pré and her decline from celebrated cellist because of MS, ‘Duet for One’ explores the mental state of a musician deprived of her music and therefore her reason to live.
This might make one think it is a morbid and depressing play; but it truly isn’t, it is uplifting, noble, funny (in a pithy, witty way) and I felt entertained. ‘Duet For One’ has certain parallels with ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway’, another two-hander of the 80s that tells the story of a paralysed man in a hospital bed. In fact, it was Flavia Bateson’s directorial debut at Chesil some years ago. Yes, both deal with difficult subjects; but treated with sympathy, a good script, talented cast and forceful direction, the most awful situations can produce excellent theatre.
Chesil Theatre are not known for avoiding difficult and challenging subjects. Flavia Bateson says: “I chose this play not only for its fine narrative and writing but because it is a challenge to me as a director to find ways of injecting vibrancy and interest into two largely static characters”.
So although we see just two characters on stage – the brilliant concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams cruelly robbed of her ability to play and her probing, soft-spoken shrink, Dr Feldman – this play is really a three-hander. One is always aware of the director’s presence as the story is told in a series of six short chronological interviews.
The choice of play is perfectly matched to the ambience of Chesil’s intimate theatre and the atmosphere is tangible. The simply lit set is the doctor’s home-office, meticulous in detail and reflective of the man himself – a tidy, practical, tasteful backdrop to someone whose job it is to quietly ask the questions which will reveal the darkest thoughts in the patient.
David Baldwin as the psychiatrist with his passive, calm – almost hypnotic – voice gives a fine performance, a realistic and sympathetic tribute to Kempinski’s excellent script. David’s soft German accent, which could so easily become the subject of inappropriate mirth in the wrong hands, adds to the overall effect, as do the dapper suits, bow tie and his studious attentiveness. A fine performance which in the second half sees the good doctor drop his mask for a few minutes in an understandable outburst at Miss Abrahams. The physician is human, after all.
It is around Miss Abrahams that the play revolves. As I say, it is almost impossible to imagine what the loss of Stephanie’s raison d’être must feel like. Her frustration and shock at finding herself in a wheelchair take her, and us, on a roller coaster ride of emotions. In turn, these emotions produce fear, cynicism, sharp acerbic wit, false hope, depression, happiness, anger, despair and finally acceptance. Katy Watkins’ portrayal of Stephanie is awesome. Few would attempt to take on such a complex, demanding role played in past by the likes of Juliet Stevenson, Belinda Lang and Julie Andrews but Katy’s skill as an actress has delivered a stunning version of the troubled Miss Abrahams. Were those much coveted local acting awards still being handed out every January, Katy Watkins would be first in line for one, surely.
To capture for a whole evening the undivided attention of an audience with such a relatively static two-hander takes some doing. The only respite (and I use the word carefully) is provided in the very short breaks for costume changes and even then a series of projected photographic stills and the sound of a violin solo remind us of what this woman has lost.
Stephanie’s costumes reflect her mood perfectly – her smart dresses in the opening scenes designed to match her false optimism, are eventually replaced by jeans and a scruffy top that she admits she hasn’t changed for a week. Her aloofness and frustration turn rapidly to anger and some apparently uncharacteristically ripe language. Her venomous personal attack on the good doctor eventually turns to gratitude for helping her come to terms with her illness and inevitable decline.
Powerful stuff and if, as I quoted another theatre producer this week, theatre has a duty to educate as well as entertain, one needs to look no further than this latest Chesil Theatre production.