Duet for One – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Tom Kempinski
Director: Robin Lefevre
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Stephanie, a brilliant violinist at the peak of her career, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As the disease progresses, she gradually becomes unable to play or even walk reliably. Her husband, also a brilliant musician and composer, has suggested she see Dr Feldman, a psychiatrist, to help her cope with her occasional ‘low’ periods.

It has long been noted that this story has obvious parallels with the life of cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, but Writer Tom Kempinski dismisses this theory in his programme notes, saying rather that it is inspired by his own experiences beginning as long ago as the beginning of World War II. Whether the similarity between some of the events in the lives of Stephanie and du Pré is intentional or coincidental, Duet for One does show a journey that most of us will never have to contemplate and one woman’s response to the potentially devastating news.

The play takes the form of a sequence of vignettes of sessions between Stephanie (Belinda Lang) and Feldman (Oliver Cotton).  At the beginning she is artificially bright, apparently positive and claiming acceptance and a desire to continue being useful as a teacher and administrator for her husband; but it is clear to both Feldman and the watching audience that this is a fragile façade and as the play continues we see that façade gradually crumble and we get glimpses of Stephanie’s journey as she begins to allow her emotions free rein and her true feelings come to the surface.

As Stephanie, Lang is quite superb. She walks the line between a show of acceptance and the rage just beneath the surface well. Her body language, even constrained by being largely wheelchair-bound, enables us to see the lie in Stephanie’s words immediately. Her mood changes are totally believable as she verbally spars with Feldman.

Cotton’s Feldman is less easily read. He has rather less to say, preferring to prod Stephanie with well-chosen words and then sit back, attacking with slabs of silence as Stephanie responds and opens up. Cotton is a master of the expectant pause. However, his largely stationary blocking means that his face is not visible to portions of the audience for long periods so that our attention is directed more to his words, inflections and gross body movements, making him something of an enigma. While this does serve to highlight the contrast between Stephanie and him and the times when we catch glimpses of his own feelings and attitudes, one can’t help but feel that he is under-directed.

Lez Brotherston’s detailed set is exactly what one might imagine the study of a psychiatrist might look like – heavy furniture, shelves of books, CDs and records with plenty of space for Stephanie to move around in her chair and, occasionally, on foot. It is supported by Ian Scott’s simple lighting design.

The play is an interesting peek into what happens in the psychiatrist’s office and we are interested to see Stephanie’s growth in understanding her own feelings on her journey. But we never get under Feldman’s skin in the same way – the few occasions when he does make a speech from the heart whet the appetite but ultimately we are not sated.

Runs until 7 October 2017 | Image: Robert Day

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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