Duet for One
Therapy is celebrity by another name. An artificially created audience bears witness to your anguish and joy and enables you to resolve the terrible contradiction that underpins every human being’s world-view. Each of us, in his gut, feels like the star of his life. But in his head he knows he’s just one of billions of forgettable cameos. Celebrity and therapy resolve this conundrum. Therapy lets you believe your little world, and its problems are as significant as the rest of humanity. Celebrity forces the same belief. But while commentators everywhere decry celebrity and its narcissistic ramifications, no one is particularly bothered about the baleful influence of its elder sibling (I nearly said big brother), therapy. Duet for One by Tom Kempinski is a static, heavily textured drama about psychoanalysis which since its première in 1980 has been revived dozens of times around the world. It must be doing something right. The setting is banal, a book-lined office with a couch of crimson velvet where the fretting bourgeoisie come to offload their problems for 200 quid an hour. Henry Goodman’s pointy-bearded therapist is a pipe-smoking, cactus-watering, Beethoven-playing Hampstead cliché complete with green tweeds and a set-text questionnaire which he delivers in sinuous clusters of Viennese atonality. ‘Do you veep in ze morninks? Did you luff your muzzer? Do you zuffer from suezidal longinks?’ His patient, Juliet Stevenson, is a posh violinist with multiple sclerosis whose manual dexterity is collapsing nearly as fast as her marriage to a famous composer. There’s something over-neat about this arrangement. A fiddler with frazzled digits is a boil-in-the-bag crisis, a just-add-water tragedy. And the deployment of music as an emblem of love is equally unoriginal but the slow-moving drama gradually becomes more gripping as it evolves from a monologue into a duel.
Juliet Stevenson is one of the most gifted actresses you’ll ever see and her naturalistic fluency on stage is more than a joy to watch, it’s a mystery, a miracle even. Beside her Henry Goodman’s shy, sly, enigmatic therapist is inevitably a little stagey, but he has a five-star moment in the second act when he loses his rag with the vexed musician and gives her a school-room rollicking. ‘Get off your arse,’ he yells, before embarking on a passionate defence of his vocation as an emergency service which plucks life, precious life, sacred life, from the jaws of all-devouring death. Fair point. If your sympathies, like the author’s, lie with disease, vacillation, introspection, infant trauma and self-pity you’ll watch this show through warm, wet, sniffly tears. At the end, during the curtain call, there was a partial standing ovation. Those who were partial to the play stood. Those who were partial to their seats sat. And I noticed that everyone standing was female.
A new play by Marcus Markou, Ordinary Dreams, begins as a straightforward comedy of domestic bliss turned sour. Two yuppie couples appear to be heading for some painfully exciting and excitingly painful bed-hopping. Then a swerve. The central character, Miles, gets the sack and has a nervous breakdown. Armed with a huge silver candlestick he hammers down the front door of his noisy neighbours and roams the streets attacking gangs of hoodies. As his condition worsens, he takes to an electric wheelchair and engages in savagely hilarious denunciations of modern life while armed with a stab-vest and a medieval mace. Then he goes completely bonkers and disappears into a fantasy world in which he sweeps into Downing Street as a smooth and devastatingly attractive populist politician. This is an unusual play, an existential comedy, in which the lead actor James Lance delivers a tour de force. With his swarthy good looks and rasping smoky voice he has exactly the right note of careworn amusement for the sacked failure Miles and he assumes a cloak of bright and brilliant puppyish charm as his world-conquering alter ego. It’s rare for an actor as handsome as Lance to be funny without resorting to a cupboard full of ‘amusing’ tics and mannerisms but this guy has it all: dreamboat looks and an effortless sense of comedy. This is a very timely if not wholly successful script whose short scenes and hop-scotch structure would suit TV better than the theatre. Indeed it stirs memories. A bourgeois sitcom with a macabre heart and a central character who responds to stress by indulging in a satirical dream-life. It’s Reggie Perrin, a classic currently being revived and needlessly harried to death on the BBC. Pity they didn’t do this instead.