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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Passion Play
Duke of York's Theatre Summer 2013

This is a first-rate revival of what is at best a second-rate play. As you enjoy the acting, direction and design, you may find yourself wondering if the raw material deserved such loving and adept treatment. 

I thought three decades ago, when I first saw it, that Peter Nichols' drama was too transparently the apologia of a middle-aged writer – not in its facts but in its thinking. 

A happily married middle-aged man has an affair with a younger woman and then spends the rest of the play berating his wife for not being sympathetic and forgiving enough. The wife's pain is acknowledged, but the play, however hard it tries to distance itself from the husband, persists in making it her own fault for being so inflexible. 

The play did have one major insight that almost saved it back then, in recognising the enormous generation gap in sexual attitudes between those who grew up in the 1950s and those even ten years younger, and the younger woman's unfettered enjoyment of sex could be seen as a healthy and perhaps even curative shaking-up of the older couple's lives. 

But time has somewhat dimmed that distinction, and she now seems – and is played by Annabel Scholey as – a cold and self-absorbed predator irresponsibly indulging her passing whims and leaving the wreckage of other people's lives behind. So the enraptured husband seems even more pathetic, the wife even more put-upon, and the play's sympathies even more misguided. 

And yet director David Leveaux and his cast, by treating the play with more respect than it deserves, create an engrossing, frequently moving and occasionally comic domestic drama and certainly a display of excellent acting. 

Nichols employs the gimmick, not fresh even then, of dividing his two main characters into two actors each, the inner and outer selves. This allows one to speak the hidden thoughts of the other, the two selves to support or argue with each other and, at a couple of key moments, for one set to act out what their counterparts are only thinking or describing. 

As the external husband Owen Teale makes his sad rationalisations and self-justifications seem almost innocently sweet, while Oliver Cotton as his inner self expresses the raw desire and occasional self-criticism. 

Zo Wanamaker makes the external wife seem extraordinarily sane and flexible in her attempts to cope with betrayal, while Samantha Bond is her alternately enraged and heartbroken hidden self. 

Annabel Scholey has clearly been directed to make the other woman thoroughly despicable, and does so very well. Hildegard Bechtler's revolving set is more elaborate than the play needs, but lovely to look at.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Passion Play - Duke of York's Theatre 2013 
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