A Saturday matinee.
Both upper levels of the Duke of York’s appeared to be closed, the theatre barely a third full. No wonder some of the cast couldn’t resist sneaking furtive glances into the auditorium (not furtive enough – we caught you!). The pain and angst apparent on the actors’ faces in Peter Nichols’ 1981 adultery tragi-comedy Passion Play probably didn’t require quite as much acting at this performance.
Music teacher Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker) has been married to James (Owen Teale) for 25 years – apparently monogamously – but their much younger friend Kate (Annabel Scholey), borrowing the Catherine Zeta Jones’ look from Chicago (which would be the Louise Brooks’ look if you’re of a Whingers’ age), has a history of making herself readily available to pleasure older men. Can James resist her minxy advances? What are the chances?
Nichol’s twist is to give the married couple identically dressed alter egos, (Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton, both drily amusing and dressed as their counterparts – not as each other – that is) who provide much of the comedy as conversations are intercut with them voicing the characters’ inner feelings. Got that? Someone didn’t. It feels like a mixed doubles tennis match and can get complicated when all four are on stage. An elderly woman in the row behind explained the conceit to her perplexed elderly male companion as the play progressed, adding “I meant to explain that to you earlier.” Quite. Pity she didn’t.
The set-up takes a while but things take off at the first big reveal when Eleanor learns about the affair as she reads a letter her husband has rather foolishly written to the coquette. A letter? How wonderful! Hands up if you remember the early prototype for a text. It’s all rather well-played, especially by Wanamaker and especially in that letter scene. She also employs impressive use of her tear ducts. How do they do that? Our advice: never marry an actress.
She even survives that theatrical embarrassment of having to emote to classical music. No actor should ever be required to do that, just as they should they never be forced to stare out from the stage imagining they’re enjoying a view of the sea/sunset/majestic mountains/traffic accident (fortunately they don’t have to do that here as it would provide them with another look at those rows of empty seats).
Hopefully James is a much more competent lover than he is art-restorer: he doesn’t appear to notice a distinctly visible dent in the minimalist canvas he apparently studies carefully (had a feckless stagehand left it backstage resting against a door handle?). But there’s a decent vomiting scene from Bond even if nothing actually comes out; presumably care must taken on Hildegard Bechtler’s stylish white set. The wonderful Sian Thomas – no stranger to spectacular on-stage vomiting herself – is sadly underused as a previous victim of Kate’s husband-pilfering.
Although David Leveaux’s production is largely absorbing and sometimes funny, it is difficult to warm to the characters and really care about them. In Act II their shenanigans tend to get a tad repetitive.
The gratuitous female nudity and concept of very attractive young woman throwing herself at a rather disheveled older man may be nothing new but it hints at a middle-aged male writer’s self-indulgence (Nichols would have been about 54 when this was first produced). There’s a two word expression for it ending in “fantasy” that we’re far too polite to mention.
Our mothers may see this don’t you know.
We got 2nd row stalls day seats for £10. There wasn’t much of a queue. St Martin’s Lane has turned, temporarily, into Bond Street. Samantha Bond (a former Miss Moneypenny) is playing few doors down from the Noel Coward Theatre which had a huge day seat queue (possibly 80 to 100 people) for Q and M in Peter and Alice. Shame they can’t filter a few off to the DOY’s; Passion Play, despite some reservations, is much more entertaining.