Duet for One

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 October

“…that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless”. Milton was writing about his blindness, but his desperation is that of any creative or interpretive artist.

Since 1980, my own understanding, as well as that of most fellow critics and theatre- and film-goers understood that this play was based on cellist Jacqueline du Pré whose spectacular career was cut off when she developed multiple sclerosis in her mid-20s.

In a programme note for Robin Lefevre’s tour of his production for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, author Tom Kempinski denies that his violist protagonist Stephanie Abrahams is actually based on du Pré. Quite frankly, I’m not entirely convinced.

That is not to say that Lefevre’s excellent staging with its realistic set by Lez Brotherston cleverly lit by Ian Scott and with John Leonard’s never obtrusive use of sound isn’t effective. It is.

As Stephanie, Belinda Lang gives a superbly paced performance of a young woman in (quite natural) denial both of her early years and the bleakness of her present situation and lack of options for the future. On one level, this is indeed a duet for one person, her constant fiddling with hair and scarf mirroring her own insecurities.

Oliver Cotton’s Dr Feldmann provides much more than mere accompaniment and a soundboard as the psychiatrist she so unwillingly consults. Between them they people the stage with those who have affected Stephanie’s life.

These include the mother with her own frustrated musical ambitions who died young, the father intent on providing her with future security, the composer husband whose own ambitions don’t really include the care of an increasingly invalid wife.

On one level it’s a tragedy about wasted lives. But the two actors bring out the comedy in their exchanges and the ending is far more upbeat than I remember it from both the original production and subsequent revivals. As all good plays should do, this production leaves one thinking. And wondering.

Four and a half-star rating.

Duet for One continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 October with matinées on 12 and 14 October.

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