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posted/updated: 05 Oct 2012 - edit review / upload photos
Duet for One
society/company: Churchill Theatre Bromley (professional productions) (directory)
performance date: 04 Oct 2012
venue: Churchill Theatre, Bromley
reviewer/s: Diana Eccleston (Sardines review)

Plays dealing with disability are not easy to stage and can be hard to watch. Reviewing them isn’t a piece of cake either!
Duet for One was written by Tom Kempinski for his then wife Frances de la Tour, inspired by the real-life story of celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987), whose glittering international concert career was cut short by the onset of Multiple Sclerosis. It premiered in 1980 at the Bush Theatre before transferring to the West End. It was made into a movie starring Julie Andrews and has since played in 46 countries garnering many awards on the way. This revival stars notable TV actors, Haydn Gwynne as Stephanie Abrahams, a celebrated violinist who has contracted MS, and William Gaunt as the therapist to whom she goes for counselling.

As I said, it’s a toughie to stage, just one room with two actors and is of necessity pretty static since she is in a wheelchair and he is seated, posing questions, listening intently and making the occasional note. It also requires some listening intently from the audience, and a deal of concentration. Which is didn’t get from the old lady sitting a few seats along from me who, after scrabbling noisily in her handbag for what seemed like minutes, produced her spectacles then spent most of the performance asleep.

It really isn’t a joyful journey, hearing from Stephanie how her creeping illness is affecting her life: of the sacrifices it demands she makes and the ways her life must change as she can no longer play the music she loves. She relives her relationships with her parents and we learn about her explosive first meeting with the man who was to become her husband just three weeks later, and how she feels about their relationship now she cannot make music any more while he composes and plays his modern music within her hearing. Her decline and self-degradation are uncomfortable to watch and acutely well charted by the writer.

Can one ever truly come to terms with something as life-shattering as Stephanie’s MS? Kempinski explores the shifting sands of changing moods and emotions and I admit that it reminded me of my brief experience of counselling, in that it was like picking over a scab I came to understand would only fully heal with time, no matter how much talking went on. Haydn Gwynne keeps the piece as pacy as possible with Stephanie’s mercurial moods and angry barbs delivered with a sharply acid tongue when required.

Gaunt is the avuncular professional Dr Feldmann, with a (scripted!) clichéd Germanic accent which started off irritating me as much as it apparently does Stephanie! But he’s a good foil for his patient and the scene in which his non-emotional detachment gives way to an orchestrated outburst necessary to change Stephanie’s terrible downward spiral is well handled.

This is a difficult, thought-provoking piece of theatre, not for the faint-hearted but well worth the effort.

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