Stephanie and Feldman

Belinda Lang as Stephanie and Oliver Cotton as Dr Feldman. Pictures: Robert Day

Duet for One

Birmingham Rep


Multiple sclerosis doesn’t do happy endings. In bland, unemotional medical terms it is a neurological condition; in human terms it promises little but a future of desolation and despair.

For a musician regarded as one of the best of her generation, no longer able to perform, or even play, the condition must feel like a constant bereavement.

Tom Kempinski’s play leads us into some of the mind’s darker corners as once celebrated, now wheelchair dependant violinist Stephanie Abrahams visits psychiatrist Dr Feldman.

We see flashes of anger, of scorn, attempts to shock or insult, tears, despair, every emotion raw and exposed, as she struggles her way through six sessions, each more depressing to watch than the last until finally Kempinski’s good doctor manages to give his patient, and perhaps his audience, what is needed  – hope.

I had a friend, now dead, who had had MS since his 20s, with each attack taking a little bit more of him away. How people cope with first the diagnosis and then the condition is beyond imagination, yet cope they do.


Belinda Lang's Stephanie reflects on her life by Ian Scott's beautifully lit window.

And Duet for One puts that process into words. Belinda Lang is quite superb as Stephanie, the headstrong, confident and very frightened violinist. In her six sessions we see virtually six characters from self-assured and sophisticated to, let’s not beat about the bush here, foul-mouthed and slutty.

This is a woman in turmoil who, despite the various masks she tries to hide behind, is struggling to cope, struggling to come to terms with her condition.

Stephanie cannot see the point of visiting a psychiatrist but husband David, a famous composer, feels it is a good idea, so that is the only reason why she is there, which she tells the doctor quite regularly among her rants and long, involved tales of her past. Lang imbues her part with such an impressive variety of moods and emotions that Stephanie becomes a real person, someone we know, and care about, long before the end.

Oliver Cotton has a much more difficult job, being almost a silent partner in this two-hander. Psychiatrists don’t talk, they listen, and apart from one explosive episode when he lays down the law, they show no emotion. So, he is left with the task of creating a character, of making us believe in his Dr Feldman, with little more than his silences to play with. That he achieves it says much for his part in two powerful performances that are equally difficult in their contrasting ways.

One prattling on, uneasy with silence, needing to fill the void with words, the other watching and waiting for the uneasy quiet to be broken or, in an apparently dismissive manner, asking a question to change direction and subject, disregarding all Stephanie has just said.

Oliver Cotton's Dr Feldman listens and questions on his shared journey with his patient

Yet this psychological fencing match is not without its humour, albeit on the blacker side of comedy, and it even has its laugh out loud moments, but beneath it all is a very human tale about the capacity to cope or even come to terms with adversity.

The situation has echoes with Jacqueline du Pré, world renowned cellist married to equally famous conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who was diagnosed with MS and forced to stop performing aged 27 – dying when she was 42.

But, if the situation might have been the inspiration, as Kempinski points out in the programme notes, this is not a play based on her life, but rather on his own, or at least his repression of feelings after a series of traumatic incidents.

Whatever the background the result is a play which is at times moving and emotional, at times funny and always very human, it is writing which gives actors a chance to shine, and shine they do quite beautifully in this glorious piece of theatre.

The setting by Matthew Bourne’s long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston is all you would expect from a successful, established psychiatrist’s consulting room, traditional, comfortable, not at all flashy or modern, complete with solid old fashioned Victorian radiators and a rear wall given over to books, and CDs, perhaps to emphasise a shared love of music.

Ian Scott’s lighting is also worth a mention with a glorious sunlight pouring through a large window at the side of the stage while Tracey Dolby does a fine job as dresser as Stephanie changes complete costumes in seconds between sessions helping to keep up the natural pace of the piece.

It might be uncomfortable at times but is always absorbing to watch. Well directed by Robin Lefevre, Duet for One runs to 07-10-17

Roger Clarke


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