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Duet For One By Tom Kempinski at Orange Tree Theatre

This two-hander is said to be based on what happened to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré OBE (1945-1987), a renowned cellist whose promising playing career ceased at 28 years old because of multiple sclerosis, although nothing in the show’s programme explicitly indicates this. Either way, Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald), a violinist, still has much to be thankful for – for one thing, she can afford to have therapy appointments with Dr Feldmann (Maureen Beattie), apparently for £300 per session, or at least has a husband prepared to spend that kind of money. Feldmann is a shrewd listener: having established that Abrahams doesn’t do what her husband asks of her as a matter of principle (in other words, she exercises independent thought), when she returns for another session because her husband asked her to, the therapist refers to her earlier statement and concludes that she must have returned at least partly of her own volition after all.

Tara Fitzgerald in Duet For One, by Helen Murray.
Tara Fitzgerald in Duet For One, by Helen Murray.

The level of conversation in these sessions slides from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again, with Abrahams adopting a mocking tone – it’s unclear, at least to her, what all this talking is supposed to achieve, when all she wants to do is play her violin again, but her condition means that will be an impossibility in perpetuity. Still, she comes back, over and over, with her moods ranging from borderline euphoric to downright furious, with the mockery giving way to undisguised opposition. Feldmann has no problem acknowledging she cannot be universally liked by all her clients, but sometimes her mood is as difficult to judge as Abrahams – often coming across as broody, one can only guess at what her inner thought processes might be.

The stage revolve is used extensively, moving slowly but surely, and allowing the in-the-round audience to get a good view, literally and figuratively, of both sides of the discussion. There may or may not be a metaphor about the world always turning irrespective of whether someone’s individual universe has come crashing down. The stagecraft consists almost entirely of sitting down and talking, whether cordially, convivially or confrontationally, but the conversations are nonetheless riveting.

Abrahams’ physical condition varies: as time goes on, any increase in her fragility is far from linear. Feldmann, meanwhile, has her work cut out for her, but as she mentions towards the end of the play, it is nearly always thus – she talks in terms of a battle, a struggle, a fight, the latter of these being something she urges Abrahams to join if there is any chance of not being taken by her own hand. The frustrations within both characters are palpable, and it is sometimes far from comfortable to watch, though it is not intended to be.

The play premiered in 1980 – a generation later, it’s not that it’s aged well, but rather it hasn’t aged at all, retaining an insightful and intelligent portrayal of the human condition. This particular production has made some minor acknowledgements to more contemporary times, such as Feldmann looking something up on a tablet computer. A bold and unflinching show that educates without being didactic, and entertains without being sentimental.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

You see, there’s no God, Dr. Feldmann, but I know where they got the idea; they got it from music.

Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald) is a world-renowned concert violinist at the peak of her career. But upon receiving life-changing news, Stephanie is forced to look for a new way to live. Her composer husband sends her to psychiatrist Dr Feldmann (Maureen Beattie), but Stephanie isn’t interested in offers of help. As her beloved music falls silent, Stephanie must dig deep into her past to face an unknown future.

Cast: Tara Fitzgerald and Maureen Beattie
Director: Richard Beecham

Orange Tree Theatre presents
By Tom Kempinski
Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, TW9 2SA

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