Poor Vivienne Eliot – the neurotic woman whose marriage to T.S. Eliot was a bit of a disaster; who suffered from horrifically irregular menstruation among other ailments; and who spent the last nine years of her life in a mental hospital, never once visited by her husband. Her story tends to paint T.S. Eliot in a rather bad light: a great poet but a cruel partner, afraid of female sexuality and cold in the face of his wife's illness.

So, at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, when Vivienne Eliot's story is told through a one-woman show sung by Clare McCaldin and directed by Joe Austin, it's not without a certain sense of retribution – of giving this terribly oppressed woman a chance to relate her side of affairs.

Yet this piece doesn't simply try to defrock the great modernist poet: Vivienne is shown in all her catty, unfaithful, neurotic glory, clearly a woman who needed a strong personality to contend with her. What is also emphasised in Vivienne is the influence she had on T.S. Eliot's writing – she is often hailed as his muse, particularly for certain passages in The Waste Land – and Andy Rashleigh's libretto cleverly interweaves excerpts and motifs from Eliot's poetry.

At times Rashleigh's text gives the impression of nodding smugly to a well-read audience – throwing in some easily recognisable phrases ("Hurry up please, it's time!") or symbols (the Phoenician sailor; the tarot card deck) from The Waste Land. But on the whole, it is rather brilliantly realised: we get some very funny passages from Vivienne accusing T.S. Eliot of being too "clever" with his Greek and Sanskrit references, and a fantastic account of her affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell in the style of Eliot's "Macavity: The Mystery Cat".

Musically, too, Stephen McNeff's score has much of the same pastiche and multi-voiced confusion of Eliot's poetry. Pianist Libby Burgess accompanied McCaldin throughout, with threads of music hall tunes, jazz and Tin Pan Alley almost sneakily strung together in a score that is tuneful yet changeable enough to avoid predictability.

Clare McCaldin performed fantastically, perfectly channeling Vivienne's fragile mental state. She conveys the desperation of a woman who was once seductive, charming and intelligent, but whose powers now fail her. Her voice was continually well-matched to the fickle moods of an insane woman, from melancholy moaning to belting out rude sailor songs.

It's rare that a one-woman show can be so clever and funny without dragging towards the end – but Vivienne kept up its pace, and was a fitting elegy to the woman behind much of T.S. Eliot's poetry.

Vivienne, at Riverside StudiosKate Mason reviews Vivienne at the Tête à Tête Opera festival.4