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FringeReview UK 2023

Duet For One

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Director Richard Beecham, Designer Simon Kenny, Lighting Designer Aideen Malone Sound Designer & Composer Oliver Vibrans, Fight Director Claire Llewellyn of Rc-Annie Ltd, Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG.

Production Manager Stu Burgess, Technical Manager Lisa Hood, Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Deputy Stage Manager. Vicky Zenetzi, ASM Katy Ross, Productions Chris McDonnell, Costume Supervisor. Natalia Alvarez, Promotional Photography Rebecca Need-Menear, Rehearsal & Production Photography Helen Murray

Till March 18th


Here, what is lost is spotlit and achingly present. In the Orange Tree revival of Tom Kempinski’s 1980 Duet For One directed by Richard Beecham, violinists Gabriela Opacka-Boccadoro, and on this occasion Kath Roberts play Oliver Vibrans’ cadenza-like solos from the gallery. They’re just prior to each session that forms the play’s narrative, wandering and tonally haunted. An ex-violinist stares up at what she’s lost, from Simon Kenny’s slowly revolving circular stage.

It’s just one innovation that marks this production as more than a fresh revival: it revivifies the terrible withering of life at the play’s core.

The wrenching predicamentinspired by the onset of cellist Jacqueline Dup Pré’s MS – is sadly just as present 42 years after the play’s debut. A performing musician struck down in her prime by a physically terminal attack on the nervous system.

Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald) and Dr Feldmann (Maureen Beattie) lock wills against a common foe in Kempinski’s imaginative projection of just how such a musician might cope, or not, with the physical destruction of their gift, whilst mentally that gift is lodged with them useless, as Milton lamented. Unlike Milton though there’s no second pair of eyes, no proxy for performing. That gift literally soars here, cruelly out of reach.

Fitzgerald deploys  a superb feline growl: dangerous, acerbic, offhand. As Beattie’s Feldmann probes this Abrahams shows trigger-responses not simply because she’s given medical side-effects. She becomes angrier, spikily defensive, provoking narratives revealing and misleading, Fitzgerald all the while eyeing Beattie with one bold stare. Offstage husband composer/conductor David has suggested Feldmann as therapist: Abrahams can only growl assent, and gradually pare back the suggestion as something more conditional, that marvellous David (echoing Daniel Barenboim, whatever Kempinski says) is just one of those icons that need prodding.

Here too there’s a small, telling innovation, beyond a range of subtle updates like emails and the moment Feldmann confronts Abrahams with her lost gift – Beethoven’s Violin Concerto cadenza from her tablet. Beattie takes on a previously male role; much clears away. Gone are patriarchal overtones of profession or even father, and Beattie’s character whilst not maternal takes on a steely Presbyterian glint: someone ferocious in the cure of souls.

It’s a superb rethinking of Feldmann, and indeed here both characters manifestly have much to lose, as Abrahams’ illness bares both their natures, however Feldmann covers her tracks: Fitzgerald and Beattie are ideally matched.

Both characters are Jewish, but there’s gradations: it’s Abrahams who explains ‘touchus’ as Yiddish for arse. Neither are frum, but there’s tacit even mischievous probing of Feldmann’s identity in between Abrahams’ sulks, faux uber-coping, anger and desolate admission of an affair so casual you wonder Feldmann doesn’t question it. Instead Feldmann interprets it as a final slide.

More, Feldmann’s controlled eruption at the end seems at this remove an echo of that Viennese emigré Mr Miller in the most moving moment of The Deep Blue Sea, and for the same reason: fighting attempted suicide. Kempinski’s great moment owes something to Rattigan and again casting Beattie usefully distances that.

This climax apart, this isn’t a play for great reveals or  theatrical volte-faces. Play here is all in the joust and jump-off of the protagonists. The cliff-hanger whether or not Abrahams will make the next session a continual question-mark, punctuated here by Roberts’ violin, liminal and nagging.

Aideen Malone’s lighting – blue and white sizzles – invokes damaged nerves, as Roberts plays, or suffuses the white circle of Kenny’s revolve: all white bar the emblematic cactus near the patient. Or lights mordantly on the central white tissue-box (very Truly Madly Deeply, indeed one is finally taken) squatting like a hub, or well of unshed tears between the protagonists.

Abrahams has beaten the disdaining father, partly recovered from the early loss of a mother whose own gifts were sacrificed; and discovers in the act of playing an ecstasy beyond all else, for which incidentally both David and Feldmann value her, begging questions of who Abrahams can be now. Roberts’ violin though underscores how there can be no salvation; the question of whether to live hangs in this production more nicely – and terribly – than previously, as light and music fade. Truthful to the condition, Kempinski has crafted an enduring drama of what it’s like to lose the joy of a life worth living.