Obituary: Tom Kempinski

Playwright who wrote his personal trauma into his two most successful plays


Jews may be noted for their interest in psychotherapy and mental health but playwright Tom Kempinski, who has died aged 85, went a step further. He allowed his depression and agoraphobia to filter through his two most successful plays.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than in his seminal 1980 drama Duet for One, on which his reputation largely rests. Premiered at west London’s Bush Theatre in 1980, it offers a challenging encounter between a suicidal, wheelchair-bound concert violinist who has multiple sclerosis, and a German Jewish psychiatrist.

The violinist was widely believed to be based on the gifted cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987 after suffering from the disease for many years. But it took Kempinski until 2017 to refute this as pure coincidence, insisting that the play explored his personal terrors.

“It doesn’t relate to Jacqueline du Pré at all,” he declared. “Rage, ideas of sexual perversion, ideas of torturing people, ideas that I had to suppress. Or paralyse. And that’s the woman, paralysed in the play.”

The violinist, Stephanie, was played by Tom’s partner of the time, Frances de la Tour, the mother of two of his three children. David de Keyser portrayed the Jewish psychiatrist, Dr Alfred Feldman, who struggles to convince the violinist that life is worth living.

The play was an immediate success, transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre, before moving to Broadway in 1981, where it starred Anne Bancroft and Max von Sydow.

In 2009 it was performed in London’s Almeida with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, and at the Orange Tree this year, starring Tara Fitzgerald in the role of the violinist and Maureen Beattie as the doctor. Julie Andrews and Alan Bates starred in the 1986 film, with a screenplay written by Kempinski, for which Andrews won a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

Both he and de laTour were nominated for Olivier Awards, she won best actress and the Evening Standard Award.

The play has been produced in 42 countries since then, although its initial Broadway production was a failure. Kempinski was none too happy with the film, either, comparing its soapiness to an episode of Dallas.

However, he did not sniff at the £250,000 earned by selling the rights to producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, which financed his psychoanalysis and a new house.

Despite the accolades Duet for One would win the playwright, it had a rocky start, being turned down by many theatres, which insisted nobody wanted “to see two people sitting down talking for two hours”.Kempinski, himself, also had a rocky start.

Born in London to German Gerhard Kempinski and Melanie (née Rahmer), who ran the celebrated Kempinski restaurant in Berlin. The business was confiscated and “Aryanised” when Hitler rose to power. The couple sought refuge in London in 1936. Other close family members died in concentration camps.

They re-launched the Kempinski restaurant in the same building as the Veeraswamy off London’s Regent Street.

Fearing a German invasion of Britain, Tom’s parents sent their two-year-old son to America to stay with his paternal grandparents when war broke out. But his grandfather died six months later and his grandmother sent him to a local Jewish family. After the war Tom rejoined his parents in London where his father had found work acting in British films.

But they were now strangers to theirson, who called himself Tommy and spoke with an American accent. Two years after he returned his father died at the age of 41. The ten-year-old had a mental breakdown.

His mother decided to send him to Abingdon boarding school in Oxfordshire. He won a scholarship to read modern languages at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge in 1957, but his early brilliance foundered on yet another mental breakdown after just one term.

He entered the Maudsley Hospital in south London, but fortunately his earlier experience with the Cambridge Footlights won him a place at Rada and he launched into an acting career.

He appeared with Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed in the Joseph Losey sci-fi horror film The Damned in 1961 and a year later in Blitz!, Lionel Bart’s musical set in the wartime East End. However, it flopped after a short run at the Adelphi Theatre.

He claimed bigger parts when he joined Laurence Olivier’s new National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963. They included various roles on stage and a part in Olivier’s 1965 film Othello.

He achieved arguably his most serious acting success as the protagonist in Charles Wood’s anti-war play Dingo at the Royal Court in 1967, playing a disillusioned soldier. Censorship had earlier forced the National Theatre to abandon its production.

Kempinski became briefly involved with Peter Brook’s workshop in Paris, but left in 1968 to join student revolutionaries occupying the Odéon theatre.
Film roles on the big and small screen opened up to him, including in Doctor in Trouble and Gumshoe, in which he portrayed Albert Finney’s psychiatrist.

He was a guest performer on TV in Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green and Crown Court. He continued to act while writing for the fringe during the 1970s, sometimes adapting European works. In 1971 his first of several musical collaborations with Roger Smith, Sell-Out, was performed at the Old Vic.

In 1972 he and de la Tour, co-founders of the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party, entered a decade-long relationship that produced two children.

But their separation in 1982 triggered his agoraphobia and weight gain — he weighed 25 stone at one point. He launched into writing a new play, another two-hander, Separation, and experienced the writer’s block that had plagued him when writing Duet for One.

Once again it was Kempinski who was the true protagonist of Separation, about a New York actress unable to walk without crutches. Kempinski described it as “autobiographical apart from the bit where they fall in love — everything else is completely true”.

The play transferred from the Hampstead Theatre to the West End in 1987, starring David Suchet and Saskia Reeves. In 2014 it was revived at the Bolton Octagon where it ran in rep with the same cast that also performed Duet for One.

Kempinski claimed to have overcome his writer’s block and lost 12 stone in recent years. He wrote 40 plays, but none emulated the success of Duet for One and Separation.

His Neopolitan farce Sex Please, We’re Italian, which opened at the Young Vic in 1991, based on his abandoned novel, proved a spectacular failure but also a cathartic experience for the playwright.

“It gave me a great deal of pleasure after years of introspective writing”, he said, “but it did not give the critics pleasure.”

It was damned by The New York Times as “one of the most spectacularly unfunny evenings the London theatre has seen in decades”.

As the son of European refugees from Nazism, Kempinski chose to address Holocaust memories in his 1992 play When the Past is Still to Come.

His marriage to actor Margaret Nolan in 1967 ended in divorce in 1972.

He married media lawyer Sarah Tingay in 2007. She survives him with their daughter Antonia and his children with de la Tour, Frances, Josh and Tamasin and four grandchildren.

Tom Kempinski: born March 24, 1938. Died August 2, 2023

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