Peter Buckroyd reviews Duet for One, Aspect Theatre Company at The Attic Theatre, 18th May
I saw the premiere production of this wonderful play twice in the West End when it opened in 1980 with Frances de la Tour and David de Keyser. It was so memorable that I have resisted seeing the play since but I was tempted by a production at The Attic because I thought it might be different in an intimate space rather than in a proscenium theatre. It was. And just as effective and powerful.
The play has lasted perfectly. Nothing has dated at all. The plot is extremely simple. Stephanie Abrahams, a young concert violinist married to a well-known pianist, has contracted multiple sclerosis and cannot play any more. She goes to see an Adlerian therapist, Dr Feldman, and the play consists of their imagined therapy sessions. In 1980 Jacqueline du Pre’s multiple sclerosis would have been on the audience’s mind, but probably no longer. That is probably why playwright Tom Kempinski denied that he had based his play on her. It is instead a powerful and moving piece about defensiveness and resistance in therapy and about how much painful work needs to be done before healing can begin. Once this point is reached the play ends.
We went on Saturday night and there was considerable noise pollution from the two bands playing nearly. This could have been a distraction but there was not a second where the players’ concentration lapsed, the audience had to concentrate even harder to phase out the distraction and the whole situation for the audience therefore became a metaphor for the difficulty of focus in therapy.
The two players, Martin Bourne and Katherine Parker-Jones, were outstanding. It was an object lesson in less is more. Marc W. Dugmore’s direction was impeccable. The blocking, with Feldman facing away from the client, eating lozenges, taking some notes, water spraying the plants, occasionally getting up and prowling, and Abrahams, in her electric wheelchair except for the moments when she got up and walked (and twice fell), was superb. The actors’ timing was assured. The lighting, with several very slow changes and one pool of light on Abrahams, was subtle and atmospheric. The set was clean with all its details purposeful, contributing to the text itself. Every aspect of the skilful stagecraft guided the audience in their responses.
The programme’s post-rehearsal interview showed how completely they had mastered the demands of this demanding play. Bourne said that his favourite line was ‘Don’t play silly buggers with me’. Mine too, although it was matched by the sublime unexpected moment when he addresses her as ‘Stephanie’. The play’s humour and pathos were perfectly balanced. It is a production which will long live in my memory.
I was astonished that such skill could be achieved in the first production by a new theatre company. They are a fine and important addition to Stratford’s professional theatre scene. I shall certainly see more of their work and look forward hugely to Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie in November.