Tom Kempinski obituary | Theatre

It is widely accepted that most writers, most playwrights, write about bits of themselves. But few go so far as Tom Kempinski. For some years, Kempinski, who has died aged 85, was a self-confessed overweight, depressed agoraphobic who adopted survival mode through writing about his condition.

In his best known play, Duet for One (1980), he disguised an argument with himself in the six fractious meetings between a renowned concert violinist, Stephanie Abrahams, suddenly struck down with multiple sclerosis, and a German Jewish psychiatrist, Dr Feldman, hoping to convince her that life is still worth living.

At the time of its premiere, at the tiny Bush theatre in west London, it was assumed that the play was based on the story of the virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose stellar career was halted by MS in 1973 (she died in 1987). Kempinski always denied this, admitting the subject of the play was a cathartic explosion of his own anxieties and depression. Stephanie was originally played by Frances de la Tour, Kempinski’s partner at the time and mother of two of his three children; the role of the psychiatrist was taken by David de Keyser.

Despite having been rejected by several West End managements, the play was an instant smash hit, and transferred to the Duke of York’s theatre, with Kempinski and De la Tour both nominated for Olivier awards (De la Tour winning hers for best actress, along with the Evening Standard award).

The play then opened on Broadway in 1981, where William Friedkin’s troubled production fared less well, but a second production at the Roundabout in New York in the following season, starring Eva Marie Saint, was more positively received.

It has been performed in 42 countries and was recently on stage again in London, at the Almeida (with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman) in 2009, and this year at the Orange Tree (Tara Fitzgerald as the violinist and Maureen Beattie as the doctor). Kempinski wrote a screenplay for the 1986 film version starring Julie Andrews and Alan Bates, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky – “They turned it into a sort of Dallas” – he said. But the sale of the rights to the producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus earned him £250,000, which funded his psychoanalysis and bought him a new house.

His relationship with De la Tour ended in 1982 and he moved to a nearby flat in Hornsey, north London, barely 100 yards away from the family home, so that he could share custody of the children.

Around this time he wrote a direct self-portrait – of a lonely, overweight agoraphobic playwright with writer’s block – in Separation (1987), premiered at Hampstead theatre. The play was also a love story between the writer (David Suchet, heavily padded) and an actor (Saskia Reeves) whose neurological disease has made her dependent on crutches.

Separation was as good as Duet for One, devoid of sentimentality and, not least because of two brilliant and touching performances in Michael Attenborough’s production, it transferred to the Comedy (now the Harold Pinter) for a decent run.

Tom was the only child of Melanie (nee Rahmer) and Gerhard Kempinski, hoteliers and restaurateurs in Berlin who ran the still renowned Kempinski hotel in the city. His father was also an actor. As the family business was confiscated and “Aryanised” with the rise of Hitler, Tom’s parents travelled to London as refugees in 1936 and opened a restaurant, Kempinski, off Regent Street. His maternal grandmother and uncle fled to the Netherlands, where they were captured by the Nazis and died in concentration camps.

In the spring of 1968, Tom Kempinski joined the student revolutionaries in Paris who occupied the Odéon theatre during ‘les événements’. Photograph: David Bebber/The Times/News Licensing

Born in London, Tom was two when his parents, fearing a German invasion of Britain, sent him to stay with his paternal grandparents, who had gone to New York. His grandfather there died within six months of his arrival and his grandmother, unable to cope, placed him with an accommodating Jewish family in the city.

At the end of the second world war, “Tommy”, complete with an American accent, was sent back to London, where he was greeted by strangers – his parents. Two years later, his father died of a heart attack. Aged 10, Tom had his first mental breakdown.

Now his own mother was unable to cope, so in 1951 she sent him as a boarder to Abingdon school in Oxfordshire. There he won a scholarship to read modern languages at Gonville & Caius college, Cambridge, in 1957. He lasted one term, had another breakdown, then voluntarily entered the Maudsley hospital in south London for a few weeks.

He then won a place at Rada – he had briefly joined the Footlights at Cambridge – and went straight from there into a Joseph Losey film, The Damned (1961), a sci-fi horror starring Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed. In 1962, Kempinski played a prominent role in Lionel Bart’s exclamatory follow-up to Oliver!, Blitz!, a sensationally designed (by Sean Kenny) epic of the East End of London during the war, but it failed to take off, running at the Adelphi for 16 months.

“It was,” said Noël Coward, a huge fan of Oliver! and a friend of Bart’s, “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing.”

Kempinski left the cast to walk on at Laurence Olivier’s new National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963, playing a string of increasingly larger parts, culminating in the resourceful manservant Jeremy (to John Stride’s Valentine) in Peter Wood’s beautiful production of Congreve’s Love for Love. He also played a variety of small roles in Olivier’s Othello, on stage and film.

His acting highlight was in the title role of Charles Wood’s Dingo (1967) at the Royal Court. The brutal antiwar play, in which Kempinski played a hardened professional soldier disillusioned with his part in the aftermath of desert warfare, had been ditched by the National because of censorship problems, and was performed at the Court under club conditions; censorship was not abolished until the Theatres Act of 1968, and this fine play contributed to that outcome.

In the spring of 1968, Kempinski joined a workshop with the director Peter Brook in Paris, but almost immediately left to join the student revolutionaries who occupied the Odéon theatre at the centre of what became known as “les événements”.

Several film roles ensued, notably Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1972) in which, ironically, he played a sympathetic psychiatrist in a lovely scene with Albert Finney (“You’re a nutter,” he yells, climactically, at his delusional client). But he and De la Tour were making a name for themselves elsewhere as active and disruptive members of Equity and as founding members of the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary party. Kempinski later denounced the WRP but remained a committed revolutionary.

Although in 1996 Kempinski told the Independent that he had overcome his writer’s block – in the last two years he had written 11 plays; in all he wrote 40 – and lost 12 stone in weight, he never again enjoyed the success of his first two hits. But he was not bitter, nor self-pitying. Of his agoraphobia he said: “You are afraid you are going to go berserk and murder everyone outside. So you imprison yourself.”

As well as his relationship with De la Tour (1972-82), he was married twice, first in 1967 to the actor Margaret Nolan, from whom he was divorced in 1972; and second to the entertainment lawyer Sarah Tingay, with whom he had been in a relationship since 1989, in 2007.

She and their daughter, Antonia, survive him, as do his children with Frances, Josh and Tamasin, and four grandchildren.

Thomas Michael John Kempinski, actor and playwright, born 24 March 1938; died 2 August 2023

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