ms training

“We had to really research the experience of people who live with MS”

To accurately portray the main character’s multiple sclerosis (MS) in this new production, the cast and crew worked with MS-UK to undertake MS Awareness Training.

A Duet for one is a West End and Broadway play by Tom Kempinski, which was adapted into a play in 1986 starring Julie Andrews.

It is based on the life of famous cellist Jacqueline du Pré who had MS and much of the story is based on her real life.

The play, a new production specially adapted for the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, is now being shown.

We catch up with the director Richard Beecham to find out more…

Please explain how MS in integral to the play?

“The lead character in the play, Stephanie Abrahams, is a world-renowned concert violinist who receives a diagnosis of MS later in life which prevents her from playing her beloved instrument. This precipitates a huge life crisis for her as she can no longer do the one thing that gives her life purpose and meaning, as she sees it.

“It seemed to me, and the actress playing Stephanie, that in order to understand and then portray Stephanie’s predicament truthfully and with integrity, we had to really research the experience of people who live with MS – how it affects them physically, emotionally, their work and personal lives and relationships.

“We contacted MS-UK, as a respected and trusted organisation with huge expertise and experience in this area, to help us with our research. A wonderful man from the charity, who lives with MS himself, gave up over an hour of his time to talk with the actors and me over Zoom – it was a fascinating, instructive and also moving session. We learned so much about the different types of MS, how no two people experience it in the same way, and about the different treatments now available. MS-UK also provided very useful reading materials for us. The people at MS-UK could not have been more helpful and we extend a huge thanks to them.”

Did you have any experience of MS before this?

“My sister lives with relapsing-remitting MS so I knew quite a lot about her experience of the illness. But we learned from MS-UK how people living with MS experience the illness and its symptomology in very individual ways, so I didn’t want to use my sister’s personal experience as a guide to the character’s experience of the illness in the play. I wanted the actress playing Stephanie to learn about the illness in its widest sense and then to create her own MS journey for Stephanie.”

You decided not to show the main character using a wheelchair user, why was that?

“The play was written in 1980 when understanding of MS was much more rudimentary than it is now. As director of this new production, I decided I wanted to set the play in the present day rather than 40 years ago. This meant updating lots of aspects of the play, including the representation of MS and how people with the condition live with it. I felt that the wheelchair was a very blunt and simplistic metaphor for MS, and my research showed me that only 25% of people with the condition are wheelchair users. So I decided I wanted to portray MS and its impact on people in a more nuanced way, which is how I experience MS through my sister.

“So in my production Stephanie uses a walking stick in some scenes; I altered the text, with the playwright’s permission, to refer to a wider range of symptoms such as pins and needles, complications with eyes, amongst others; and in a couple of scenes Stephanie wears an eye patch. I think as someone who does not have MS myself, it’s important not to make assumptions about the lived experience of those who may be disabled or live with MS or other conditions.

“I spoke to a number of disabled theatre-makers when I was preparing the production, and what I heard from them was that using a wheelchair as a metaphor for disability, and especially using it as a signifier of something negative, is not truthful to their lived experience and can be really offensive and distressing.”

Photography by Helen Murray.

Duet for One is showing at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London, until 18 March 2023. For more information and to book tickets, visit

MS-UK have e-learning courses to help professionals supporting people with MS gain a greater understanding of life with the condition.