Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For most, a railway waiting room is a fleeting moment, a brief pause on the way to a real destination. However, in Duet, the protagonist Josh (Finn Thornton) has no other destination. Every day he visits his station’s waiting room to play the piano as he waits to move on from his wife’s tragic death. In this touching play, James Murphy has crafted a script that explores the difficulties of grief, love, mental illness and friendship, in words that are able to move us both to tears and laughter.
As Josh plays the piano each morning between 8-10am, different characters touch his life in their daily commute, chatting to him as they stand and watch him play. Those that he greets daily buy him tea, coffee, update him on their lives, yet never think to question why he sits there playing every morning, never getting on a train. For them, he is only another part of their commute. But one morning Josh meets Beth (Bella Coldstream), the first person who asks him why he’s there. From this follows a moving story in which Beth peels back Josh’s layers, exposing his suppressed grief. As the plot and their friendship develop, we learn more about the man at the piano, and the way that his conversation and music affect the lives of those who enter the waiting room each day.
There is no doubting Murphy’s skill as a writer. His writing is sharp, coloured with beautiful imagery and full of wit that the audience welcomes with frequent laughs. Even at the most tragic moments, he is able to shock us into laughter. Duet deals with difficult themes of mental illness and suicide, but these are sensitively addressed, noting the complexity and nuance of the individual experience. The production, however, should have used a more explicit content warning. Murphy’s narrative is well-paced, with a gradual reveal of information that propels us forward, keen for each scene to unfold. Some dialogue could benefit from a little tightening, and if the run-time was reduced a little, it would heighten the piece’s emotional intensity. Overall though, the dialogue convinces and allows easy immersion in the characters’ lives.
Susannah Bramwell skilfully directs Duet’s strong cast. We emotionally engage with all four actors and they all succeed in balancing humour with sadder moments. Finn Thornton as Josh articulates his character development particularly well, transitioning from reservation, to rage, to banter. Of the many who enter the waiting room and hear Josh play, we meet Siobhan (Livi Pilkington) and Peter (Callum Flint). While both of these characters risk stereotype at points as a young, ditzy single mum and a ‘city man’ respectively, Murphy seems aware of this, and ensures that each has depth. Pilkington and Flint apply unique mannerisms to their roles, constructing real characters that we care about. Bella Coldstream in the role of Beth plays energetically off Thornton, bringing a convincing abruptness and frenetic energy which creates an honest, messy relationship between them that develops intriguingly throughout.
Duet performs on a simple, functional set, constructed by stage manager Megan Tozer. The use of strobe lighting to imitate the flash of carriages moving past is particularly effective, especially coupled with routine station announcements, marking the progression of each morning. The use of piano music is obviously core to the production’s soundscape, and cleverly rises and falls at poignant moments. However, it would make more sense if there was greater variety in the music used, given Josh would naturally have a broad repertoire from playing for two hours every day and owning a music shop.
Duet is a tender piece of theatre that succeeds in rousing deep emotional feeling in its audience. Despite its occasionally dark subject matter, Duet does not fail to make us smile, and ultimately leaves us with a feeling of hope. It would be wonderful if this talented team have another opportunity to stage this production- with a little workshopping, it would be sure of success in places like the Edinburgh Fringe.
Duet continues performing in the M&D Room tonight (29th) and tomorrow (30th).