“Duet For One” is currently playing at Richmond Theatre. My test of a play is would I go again? In the case of “Duet for One” the answer is an emphatic “yes!” Don’t be put off by the pretentious title, for “Duet for One” is that rare achievement – a play that is both serious and entertaining at the same time. The two hours traffic on our stage passed in double quick time, leaving me wanting more and my immediate response was that I wanted to see it again.
“Duet for One” is what is called in the trade “a two hander.” That is to say only two actors on the stage. The set is the consulting room of the psychiatrist Dr Feldman (Oliver Cotton). A book, CD and vinyl covered wall with a music system, a desk and chair and an empty space. It is a scene familiar from movies, documentaries and novels. The set design is a brilliant device because it enables us, the audience, access to a private space that is by definition denied to us in real life. What Erving Goffman called life’s back stage areas, the toilet, the bedroom, the locker room and so on. So I would say a big thank you to Lez Brotherton and the design team for realising this stage set, it sets the drama up perfectly. The fourth wall of the room is where we the audience are sitting. This gives the play both intimacy and energy. We are, so to speak in the consulting room. This surely is one of the theatres functions to give us access to other peoples lives?
“Duet for One” is about the encounters between Stephanie Abrahams (Belinda Lang) a musician with MS and Dr Feldman a German Psychiatrist (Oliver Cotton). Stephanie enters and leaves the room on her electric wheel chair. At the end of every session Dr Feldman escorts her to the open door of his consulting room, the lights go down, after a brief interval during which classical music is played Stephanie re-enters, in a different outfit and the encounter resumes.
And that’s it.
But the play works because what happens in each of those 6 encounters, about 15-20 minutes in duration is utterly fascinating. It is absolutely gripping drama and as I said left me wanting more. What makes it so? Well I would say that the writing is superb. Tom Kempinski combines the brevity of Samuel Beckett and the wit of Oscar Wilde. He can do everything, he has every trick in the book, his repertoire is astonishing. He can switch from RP to street slang in the same sentence. The result is a play which can touch the heights of poetic intensity as in the reference to Lear’s “Never, never, never” when Stephanie breaks down to Chaucer’s bawdy comedy “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”. As when Stephanie relays the hilarious story about her affair with the scrap metal dealer “who fucks ME every Thursday when he comes round to collect copper”, as she nonchalantly remarks “I’m learning a lot about metals.”
Its one thing to have a well written play, its quite another for it to work on the stage. For that of course you need great actors. And in Belinda Lang and Oliver Cotton “Duet for One” has two of our finest. Oliver Cotton’s Dr Feldman is superb. With his love of classical music, slightly Germanic English accent and persistent questioning he manages to create a convincing and believable psychiatrist. He is adept at picking up Stephanie’s inconsistencies as when he reminds her that she said she didn’t always agree with her husband. Like the Detective Columbo he always has one more question that opens up a whole can of worms. One incident displays his professional detachment. As Stephanie leaves on her wheelchair at the end of one of their sessions she puts out her hand Dr Feldman refuses to shake it but gestures instead for her to leave the room. It’s a tiny but telling detail. When he talks about his patients that have committed suicide and that he wants Stephanie to fight with him in the struggle against despair, we get a sense of a deeply good man trying his utmost to help his patients.
Belinda Lang as Stephanie Abrahams the disabled violinist is wonderful. She starts off as the aloof and haughty – “I’m only here because my husband sent me” to the larky irreverent “who you looking at Am I Bovered” girl from the Catherine Tate show. It’s a tour de force. She achieves it on a number of levels. First with her costume changes. She first enters wearing a silk scarf, expensive dress and black shoes. She ends up in a hoody and jeans.
Secondly she changes the way she uses her body. In the early encounter’s she is “ladylike” and restrained. Later she kicks her shoes off and puts her feet up on the furniture until finally she sits legs apart like a bloke “manspreading”. Third the way she drives her electric wheelchair. As she grows more confident she uses her chair a weapon. Driving top speed towards Dr Feldman and then breaking suddenly and saying something provocative. Her favourite jibe being that he’s only in it for the money. As she says sarcastically when the doorbell rings. “Another £200 at the door Dr Feldman.”
So it’s a performance full of comic energy, but it’s not only that. It’s also about loss and suffering, depression and death. It’s a remarkable performance which I feel privileged to have seen.