Duet for One

Matthew Lloyd’s acclaimed production of Duet for One turned out to be a curious evening of thoughts, feelings and re actions.

‘This is a journey’ – Dr Feldman (Henry Goodman) tells Stephanie (Juliet Stephenson) at the end of the play ‘a journey we go on together’. A moment of hope – or a last desperate plea to a patient he feels he might not see again?

My journey that evening had started at the Southwark Playhouse for a meeting about a forthcoming project (the Insulting Cabaret, 17 April). It’s a space roughly hewn out of the railway arches by London Bridge – raw, rough, edgy and compelling. Your greeted not by the bright lights of a theatre sign (or by the chatter of the well to do) but by barbed wire and a keep out sign! It’s an interesting take on access – far more importantly though it’s going to be fascinating space to be producing in.

Meanwhile back at the Almedia Juliet and Henry are,by all accounts, giving the performance of their lives. The play explores the relationship between a concert violinist who has contracted MS and can no longer play and her psycho analyst in six scenes (or consultations). The first half is very naturalistic. Goodman as Feldman probes delicately and hardly moves from his chair – spending much time in a sleep like trance. He gently digs, and digs as Stephanie fights to remain positive. Surely better to leave those dark inner thoughts alone you find yourself thinking at the break. The second half shifts up a gear – Stephanie gets visably worse (but makes a seemingly remarkable recovery for the final scene) and Feldman in a dramatically brilliant, but slightly unbelievable scene, loses his psycho anaylists reserve as urges Stephanie to fight with him. It all centres around the key question – how do you go on living when all hope has gone? A question that is left tantalisingly unanswered as the Doctor utters his final plea.

But it wasn’t just the play that had me on edge. Look across the auditorium and – at 35 – it was clear I was – by a long way – in the youngest 10% of an almost exclusively white audience. I also found myself being would up by niggly things. Mobile phones are indeed the scourge of the theatre – but there are ways of getting the message across – ushers shouting at you as you enter the auditorium perhaps is not one of them. Brusque staff striding up and down the aisles talking into head sets also adds to a feeling that the Almeida is a ‘don’t do’ rather than ‘can do’ space. The whole thing was neatly summed up at the interval. An elderly gentleman rested his plastic glass on the stage. Seconds later a DM (politely I’m sure) asked him to remove it. But I then overheard her colleague say ‘I can’t believe people think they can do that – they wouldn’t dream of doing it at a West End Theatre’.

It’s a really minor whinge – but it did all make me feel on edge. Theatre should be about inclusivity and if that old gentleman had been a young first time attender would they have come again? And I bet if I’d stayed at Southwark Playhouse for their Midsummers Nights Dream I’d have seen a very different audience and where – frankly – where you placed your beer glass was a matter for you.

But is all this a problem when the work is as good as this? Wouldn’t I rather be sat in a nice, warm, comfortable auditorium watching Juliet Stephenson give a brilliantly controlled, understated but angry performance than sat in a cold railway archway with the trains rumbling above me? And the trouble is I’m not sure I know the answer!

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