Comedy Descends Into Melodrama In Passion Play At Duke Of York’s Theatre

Peter Nichols’ 1980s drama about sexual infidelity sparkles with wit and promise in the first half. Unfortunately, what looks like an intriguing black comedy of middle class marriage breakdown and modern manners descends into melodrama after the interval.

Passion Play’s twist is to present not just the husband and wife, James (Owen Teale) and Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) on stage, but their consciences too. As soon as picture restorer James returns to his wife following a secret lunch with the vampy Kate, he cracks in two. Identically dressed, actor Oliver Cotton appears, begging his alter ego to tell the truth. The James Eleanor can see tells her he missed her; we hear his other self remembering an illicit kiss: “Her tongue straight to the back of my mouth, circling like a snake.”

Great. You’ve made that seem unnecessarily complicated.

The result is both comic and at times heartbreaking.

At first.

James’ inner self reveals the full bluster and cringey awkwardness of the male midlife crisis. More poignant is Eleanor’s double. Zoe Wanamaker’s initially warm, happy-go-lucky Eleanor splits the moment she reads evidence of her husband’s affair. Wanamaker remains outwardly calm and strong; as Eleanor’s alter ego, the brilliant Samantha Bond in matching coat and curls shows us all the anguish of a betrayed wife, sickened and stunned to be losing her husband after 25 years of marriage.

Now that sounds like you’re just interested in the celebs.

Despite this interesting conceit, the stuff that surrounds the split personalities is less inspiring.

Tell them about the set; you didn’t like the set.

Kate, the seductress, is bizarrely one-dimensional, shedding clothing here and there with feelingless abandon. There’s too much clunky exposition at the start. And Eleanor’s final descent into a broken woman clashes inexcusably with the character we meet at the start.

Careful: don’t give too much away.

But the central performances are strong and there are definitely enough first-half laughs to qualify Passion Play as a successful black comedy. It’s when the writer pushes his characters into the other definition of passion (suffering, torment) that the play loses its way.

What do you think? Two-and-a-half, three out of five? What? You don’t give star ratings? Oh.

Passion Play is on at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG until 3 August. Tickets cost betewen £10-£57.50. Visit passionplaylondon.com for more information. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary review ticket.

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