“Gabriella Opacka-Boccadoro gives a virtuosic performance on violin, beautifully emoting Oliver Vibrans’ score”
The title implies that the focus of “Duet for One” will be on the one protagonist: the once famous violinist, slowly crippled by multiple sclerosis who self-destructively drifts into bitter isolation. In reality, though, both characters are the lead in Tom Kempinski’s affecting two-hander. And it is very much a duel, rather than a duet. A dramatized battle between the psychiatrist and the patient. A clash between the healer and the incurable.
Famous for the film starring Julie Andrews and, more pertinently, for the acclaimed stage play with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman which transferred to the West End from the Almeida Theatre in 2009, Richard Beecham’s revival at the Orange Tree Theatre has made some brave character choices. Traditionally a male role, switching the gender of the therapist to female has subtly altered the dynamics without compromising any of the tension. There is also the introduction of a third character, hitherto merely talked about to excess. The music. The inclusion of a live violinist provides some achingly beautiful moments that help connect the audience to the shadows that plague the mind of musician Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald).
Encouraged by her unseen composer husband, Stephanie has embarked on a course of treatment with Dr. Feldmann (Maureen Beattie). One doesn’t need to have been in therapy to be able to recognise the initial reticence and scepticism. Fitzgerald’s tight-rhythmed delivery of the time-honoured jibes are cloaked in light humour but dark denial. In her position we are intentionally forced to wonder why she keeps returning for another session, but we gradually feel her deep need as the tables turn.
The play is a harsh exploration of purpose, identity and suicidal despair which has the potential to be distressing but which, in Fitzgerald’s and Beattie’s hands is given a very human and relatable touch as we are led through the five stages of grief; although we never quite reach the final acceptance. Throughout the duet (or rather duel) Fitzgerald blocks the passage while Beattie’s final words teasingly suggests that there might be a way through.
Simon Kenny’s slowly revolving set lets us view the narrative from each perspective, sometimes shielding the facial expressions to allow the sharpness of Kempinski’s words reach us unencumbered. A thinly disguised study of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, the play avoids sentimentality by stripping the characters of sympathy – simultaneously pushing us away but drawing us in. At times it seems that each character is too intent on gaining the upper hand. It is only in the second act that we begin to get a sense of the emotion – the deep chasm of loss that Stephanie feels. Although Fitzgerald’s violent outbursts are not always believable, we do still want to breach the veneer of unhappiness as she reveals the crux of the matter: that without her purpose – her music – life is meaningless. Morality also rears its head as Beattie triumphs with a show stealing tirade against Stephanie’s suicidal thoughts.
Gabriella Opacka-Boccadoro gives a virtuosic performance on violin, beautifully emoting Oliver Vibrans’ score. Intended to reflect Stephanie’s states of mind it serves more to guide us from one scene to the next. Perhaps too consistently beautiful for the narrative, it yearns with longing while avoiding the hopelessness and despair. Tender is the music, but hard is the heart. There is no real resolution, or promise of a happy ending, in “Duet for One”. There is no need. The realism, both in the script and in the performances, leaves the choices to us.
‘Told by an Idiot’ have taken two of the most iconic, unusual and influential figures in show business and have shone a refracted light on them with such cock-eyed and fascinating focus that we see them both fresh and familiar. Fact gives way to fantasy, yet the truth of their characters magically shines through. The show, “Charlie and Stan”, ran in 2020, followed by a regional tour in 2021; and it is fitting that it now comes to Wilton’s Music Hall – a venue perfectly suited in which to tell the tale of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. They both had similar theatrical origins – the sketch and the pantomime of the music hall. They were contemporaries, and they both had parental disasters (which is explored in the show to great effect too). Both men made their first American tour with Fred Karno’s Company of Clowns, which is where we find them here, setting sail for New York at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.
As part of the London International Mime Festival, we expect a show with little or no dialogue; but we don’t expect such succinct and engaging storytelling. A mix of laughter and poignancy that is quite mesmerising. Framed in a series of vignettes, the narrative flashes forwards and backwards, and into dreams and nightmares. Stan and Charlie’s relationship was a troubled one – the real facts are cast overboard pretty early on, and we are left with the emotive essence, and eighty minutes of slapstick, acrobatics, dance, circus, music, mime. And plenty of gags.
The company comprises just four actors that often appear to be much more in number as they strut, disappear, reappear and morph onstage with an elastic theatricality. Danielle Bird captures Chaplin’s mannerisms with uncanny accuracy while making the acrobatic physicality feel second nature. There is a touch of Aurelia Thiérree about her performance – a fitting and perhaps unwitting similarity to Chaplin’s granddaughter; yet Bird’s natural stage presence, charisma and fluid performance certainly meets the standards set by the great family. Jerome Marsh-Reid, as Laurel, has perfected the raised eyebrows and affected nods and replicates, if not outshines, the flexibility and acrobatic skills needed for the role. We first see Nick Haverson as the cigar-chewing impresario Fred Karno, before he miraculously morphs into Charlie’s drunken and abusive dad; and later – Ollie Hardy. Complementing the trio is Sara Alexander, accompanying the action on piano. Seemingly improvised, it is as note perfect as can be. With not a sheet of manuscript of Zoe Rahman’s silent movie-esque score in sight, her playing is linked, by invisible strings, to every step and gesture the actors make. Even when Alexander moves away from the piano onto the stage (at one point as Stan’s mum), the musicality silently follows her with every movement.
It is quite a stunning masterclass in physical theatre, but the technique in no way detracts from the sheer entertainment value. Ioana Curelea’s ramshackle set matches the disorderly genius of the piece, and of the characters’ minds. Yes – the show is outlandish and chronologically haphazard, but the camouflaged precision and subtlety bring an emotive power that belies the comedy. It is out of the ordinary. And extraordinary. A striking insight into over-familiar figures.
The rivalry and camaraderie of Chaplin and Laurel is beautifully portrayed. Much is made of Stan being Charlie’s understudy on that first American tour. Charlie also dreams of throwing Stan overboard the ship. One of the most touching and affecting moments is brought to life in a sketch in which Stan visits Charlie, years later, at his Hollywood mansion. In Stan’s head they perform a tap dance together in perfect unison. In reality, though, Charlie is not at home and Marsh-Reid’s forlorn Stan realises his fruitless journey with sad eyes. Undoubtedly a reference to the fact that – bizarrely – Chaplin makes no mention of Laurel at all in his autobiography.
It is not easy to make slapstick and pathos walk so stylishly hand in hand. But ‘Told by an Idiot’ make it look so effortless; and as familiarly iconic and nostalgic as Charlie Chaplin’s stick and frogleg walk. “Charlie and Stan” is unique, original but instantly recognisable. A far-fetched fantasy that seduces reality. And ultimately seduces the audience.