Duet For One by Tom Kempinkski starring Belinda Lang and Oliver Cotton is being performed at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week and bringing with it a facet of life that many people never want to see but so often have to face up to in either their own personal life or the lives of friends and family around them - that of a life changing and progressive illness. With an opening description like this, you might be thinking “Why would I want to spend an evening at the theatre with such a depressing subject matter for a play”, but “Duet For One” is both skilfully written and performed giving an end result that, at the same time as holding a spotlight on a subject many of us find upsetting (even frightening), also provides honesty, tenderness and more than a little bit of unexpected humour.
To have your life changed by something so out of your control as an illness would be a difficult enough step for anyone, but for famed concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams, the blow is doubly cruel as her progressive illness means that she can no longer play her violin and escape to the world which her music has previously allowed her to enter. Belinda Lang is an excellent Stephanie here and through a series of sessions with psychiatrist Dr Feldman (Oliver Cotton), we slowly begin to examine Stephanie’s inner fears, inner strength, inner weaknesses and life up until this point. Belinda Lang is a believable Stephanie, and the highs and lows that she reaches during these sessions is brought to life wonderfully here. Belinda’s Stephanie is not a tragic doomed figure, but one who is experiencing a wide range of feelings. This Stephanie is a character that has real depth and at times is likeable and unlikeable in equal measure.
Providing the perfect counterbalance to Stephanie is Dr Feldmann, and Oliver Cotton seems to instinctively know when his character needs to be passive or more forceful to both his client’s revelations and at times personal verbal assaults to him. Watching Stephanie and Dr Feldmann is at times like looking at a musical score itself as the two play with inter-twining words a bit like musical counterpoint.
Duet For One is classic theatre that tells a story through believable characters, and although its subject matter might be for some one that is difficult to watch and deal with (maybe for very personal reasons), it is important that writers like Tom Kempenski are out there bringing this facet of reality to the stage. Like many of the very best stage performances, this one is set in one room, and Lez Brotherston (who also works with the wonderful Matthew Bourne company New Adventures) has given Belinda and Oliver a solid and real world to perform in here. The premise of one room, patient and psychiatrist to tell a story may at first seem very simple, but unless you have a very good script and very skilled actors you are in for a disaster as the audience has to be engaged very quickly in both the characters and the story. If they are not, then there is nowhere for anyone to hide here as apart from the story and our two performers there is nothing else happening on stage, no distractions at all. It takes two very skilled actors with a wealth of experience to be able to pull something like this off convincingly, and Belinda Lang and Oliver Cotton have the experience to do just that.
Duet For One is in this story about that life changing moment being an illness, but of course that moment can be many things, and at its very core this is about how anyone can have their normal life completely shattered and re-written by events completely outside of their ability to control and the best that they can ever do is manage the aftermath of those life changing events the best that they can. Sometimes that change brings along with it new opportunities, or an inner strength that was never there before, and it is a testament to the writing skills of Tom Kempinski that this journey for Stephanie has no defined answers here, no resolutions. As an audience we are very much on this road to somewhere with Stephanie, but like her, we have no idea where it is going or the end destination.
Review by Tom King