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Intense play stirs memories of top musician Jacqueline du Pré

A intense play with just two characters invites inevitable comparison with real life events. David Whetstone talks to the director of Duet For One

Paula Smart Anna Dobson as Stephanie Abrahams and Steve Robertson as Dr Feldmann in Duet For One at the People's Theatre
Anna Dobson as Stephanie Abrahams and Steve Robertson as Dr Feldmann in Duet For One at the People's Theatre

The loss of a life is tragic but the loss of a great talent can be equally so. People reflected on this when the brilliant young British cellist Jacqueline du Pré was struck down in her prime by multiple sclerosis.

She was only 28 when she fell ill and had had critics reaching for superlatives many times. Her mastery of the Elgar Cello Concerto had been described as “definitive”, which is about as good as it gets.

Du Pré, who was married to the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, last performed publicly in 1973 and died in1987, aged just 42.

The award-winning play Duet For One, by Tom Kempinski, was first performed in 1980 and was a big success in London and New York.

It is about a brilliant musician whose blossoming career is cut short when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Yes, she’s a violinist rather than a cellist and her name is Stephanie Abrahams, but it is generally assumed that du Pré was the inspiration for the play.

On stage the part of Abrahams was originally performed by the playwright’s wife, Frances de la Tour. A film version, also written by Kempinski, was released in 1986 with Julie Andrews as the rather surprising choice to play the leading role.

But all this is to whet the appetite for the production of Duet For One which opens in the Studio Upstairs at the People’s Theatre in Newcastle.

Once again the People’s performs the service of introducing North East audiences to something they might not have seen before.

Duet For One does get done by amateur companies, says director Kay Worswick. On the professional stage, however, you are more likely to run into Cats or Blood Brothers.

The play has just two characters, Stephanie, who’s in a wheelchair, and her psychiatrist, Dr Feldmann. She has gone to see him, we learn, on the recommendation of her husband.

“It’s a very clever play,” says Kay. “It consists of six sessions featuring the two characters and each one is very different.

“In the first act Stephanie has more of the text but Feldmann has an enormously long speech in the second act. At first you do think it’s all about her because it’s all coming from her, but the role of Dr Feldmann is actually quite powerful.

“As he starts to ask some difficult questions you see that the play is about him as well and how he’s going about helping her.”

Kay isn’t entirely sold on the idea of the play being about Jacqueline du Pré.

“I’ve thought about this a lot and there are echoes. When it was first put on there was a great deal made of that. But I think really it’s a lot about loss... about somebody for whom the purpose and meaning of their life seems to have been removed.”

Part of the play’s appeal, it seems, is the contrast between Stephanie’s understandable mood swings – anger to despair and back –and the calm, measured approach of the psychiatrist.

As is the People’s custom, open auditions were held but Kay says she knew who she wanted for the two roles.

Anna Dobson, who teaches drama at Central Newcastle High School, is Stephanie.

“I’ve always admired Anna as an actress,” says Kay. “She often plays comedic roles because her timing is absolutely spot on. But I remember seeing her in quite a small role in a Chekhov play and emotionally she was stunning.

“I just felt she had the strength to be able to sustain the emotiomnal side of the play.”

Playing Dr Feldmann is Steve Robertson. “He has acted professionally as well but he’s been a member of the People’s Theatre almost as long as I have.”

And that, says Kay, is about 30 years, although this is her first directorial role.

“I’ve had a variety of roles at the People’s. I’ve worked mainly backstage, stage managing or doing the props. I’ve assisted directors for a long time and really just needed a push to do directing myself.

“I nearly had to step in once last year. In the end I didn’t but it opened up the discussion as to whether I could do something and then the production committee asked if I’d do this one. I read it before I said yes but I hadn’t seen it. I’m not sure it has been done in the North East.”

While directing might be unfamiliar, Kay finds some echoes of her previous professional life in the subject of the play.

She used to work for the Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust, based at St Nicholas’ Hospital in Gosforth.

“I didn’t have very much patient contact but I worked with people who were working with people with mental health issues,” she says.

“I have been able to talk about the play to people I know and I think it’s given me a lot of empathy for the people in the play.”

Duet For One runs at the People’s Theatre, Stephenson Road, Newcastle, from May 27-31 at 7.30pm. For tickets tel. 0191 2655020.

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