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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman/Ph:John Haynes

Ever since Tom Kempinksi's drama first came up for analysis in 1980 at the Bush Theatre, it's been a big fringe favorite. Why? Because it needs only two actors and the story of a violinist with multiple sclerosis seeking help from a shrink deals with weighty matters of life and death. The result has been a slew of earnest and amateurish productions now sent packing by the Almeida's intense revival starring Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman.

Kempinski's play was inspired by the fate of the cellist Jacqueline Du Pre whose career was cut short by MS. But what really makes it true to life is the crackling game of verbal cat and mouse packed with every day detail. On the one hand Stevenson's violinist proudly reflects on her lost talents and plans for the future. On the other hand Goodman's shrink ruthlessly cuts to the chase. What emerges is not maudlin rumination, but a thoroughgoing battle between enervating despair and the will to live.

Admittedly there is some sentimental puff. The violinist loftily claims that 'music is the greatest expression of humanity there is'. And although the shrink is exacting in his cross-examination of her, he is also prone to Victorian fairground melodramatics with portentous lines such as 'you are at the mercy of the dark forces of your unconscious mind!&amprsquo

Nonetheless, today's debate around assisted suicide has given the thirty-year-old drama new moral resonance as the violinist comes to confront her fear of physical degeneration. Meanwhile, although Matthew Lloyd's production designed by Lez Brotherston panders to everybody's fantasy of an analyst's Persian carpeted consulting room, it is subtly updated by the inclusion of an electric wheel chair, an ink-jet printer and a stack of CDs.

But what really gets this production off the ground are the two performances. Stevenson has lost none of her talent for plunging headlong into a role and turning on the taps &ampndash a talent first paraded in her tear sodden display in Anthony Minghella's film Truly Madly Deeply. But there is also steely, physical control as she vainly attempts to remain in the driving seat of her life.

If she is fully immersed in her role, Goodman's impassive shrink is more so. Dressed in shades of brown or grey as if to blend into his consulting room, he wears a warm, professional smile at once sympathetic and reproving. Every muscle to the tips of his toes is tweaked and attentive and he carries the character's Austrian accent lightly, stroking and cajoling his client ('do you veep?&amprsquo). Sometimes exploding with iindignation, Goodman's brilliance is to direct both patient and audience to the play's dark heart and remain magnificently inscrutable.


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