DUET FOR ONE – Touring ★★★

In Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Scotland, Touring by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson

Thought-provoking and icily emotional, Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s version of Duet For One at the King’s until Saturday is wonderfully acted but never really takes flight. Tom Kempinski’s two-hander, first seen in 1980, bears superficial resemblance to the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, with its story of a classical musician (in this case a violinist) whose career is cut short by multiple sclerosis. Belinda Lang (who stepped in before the tour for an indisposed Jemma Redgrave) plays musician Stephanie Abrahams, with Oliver Cotton as Dr Feldmann, the psychiatrist who is treating her.

Kempinksi’s protestations in the programme notes that any link between his work and du Pré is ‘fake news’ ring a little hollow given the obvious and multiple similarities. However, the play does cover a great deal of other ground, touching on big questions of art, life and death.

Lang’s performance is beautifully human, encapsulating rage, despair, delusion and self-possession in equal amounts. Feldmann is mainly a foil to Stephanie, and Cotton turns in an understated performance, carefully poised and reserved. When he finally does display emotion it has all the more impact as a result.

Elegantly structured, the play takes its time revealing Stephanie’s backstory but does not stray into the artificial or impose an unnatural ‘arc’ on events – while there is definitely optimism in here, there is no false hope or trite resolution.

However, there are definite drawbacks both with the play and this production. The most obvious is the way that it is assumed that Stephanie’s depression is a symptom of deep underlying problems, when many would imagine it to be a perfectly rational reaction to her circumstances.

A play featuring two performers who are largely sitting down presents obvious problems. Director Robin Lefevre tries hard to get round this, but never really succeeds. The most usual variation has Lang moving out of her wheelchair, but her dramatic falls do not quite ring true, and her impatient stretches look more like an actor warming up than someone struggling with a progressive condition. This is doubly unfortunate as it undermines, if only slightly, what is otherwise an excellent performance.
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Lez Brotherston, long-time collaborator with Matthew Bourne, here provides an enormous, hyper-realistic set. Dr Feldmann’s office shelves are lined with books, vinyl and CDs. While beautiful in itself, the set does tend to heighten the lack of movement within it.

The play is not nearly as depressing as a synopsis makes it sound, but the humour in it fails to ignite fully. For a work that talks a great deal about uncovering hidden depths and the magic of art, it remains disappointingly superficial and earthbound – excellently played and competently staged, but lacking magic of its own.

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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.
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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.

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