Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Passion Killers

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Passion Killers

Article excerpt

Passion Play Duke of York's, until 3 August The Match Box Tricycle, until 1 June How fashions change. Peter Nichols's adultery drama, Passion Play, will seem tame and rather conventional to modern audiences. It was written in 1981 at a time when the rites and idioms of therapy hadn't penetrated every level of our culture. Back then the candid scrutiny of one's emotions, supervised by a ruminating analyst, was a thrilling and sophisticated novelty available only to high-earning fashion junkies. Today's selfelevators choose different proofs of social altitude. They drink Bhutanese champagne, they purchase dachas in Moldova, or they holiday on the Great Barrier Reef in the family bathyscaphe.

Nichols sets his drama in a swish London suburb where James, an ageing art dealer, is seduced by Kate, a killer bimbo with a penchant for lovable old daddy-bears. David Leveaux's production is stylish, snappy and great to look at. Owen Teale is pleasingly daft and vulnerable as the tousled rogue James. And Annabel Scholey is heartthumpingly sexy as the granddad-grabber in a black suspender-belt. Oliver Cotton, who plays James's inner voice, has such an extraordinary visual presence that he threatens to knock the play off course each time he bursts on stage. With his great black pandaeyes, and his surging mane of snowy white hair, he looks like a heroin-addicted Old Father Saturn standing in a wind tunnel.

Some of Nichols's plotting is a little hard to swallow. In Act II he asks us to believe that Eleanor, having learnt of James's adultery, would take Kate out on a shopping spree. No chance. Nichols also plays with the form and supplies James and Eleanor with an alter ego who articulates their private thoughts. The result is complicated, technically brilliant and dramatically rather distancing. What thrills us here is the playwright's performance rather than the agonies and ecstasies of his characters. And because Nichols leaves Kate without a private voice he disrupts the balance of the play. We never discover what motivates her other than a perverse lust for balding scalps and sagging bellies.

There's another snag as well. And this involves breaking a taboo. Zoe Wanamaker has overlooked the past 14 years in order to play Eleanor, 50, and although one shouldn't mention tree rings at all, this large gulf coarsens the play's emotional texture and deprives it of poignancy. A margin of 19 years between two rival women, as the script sets out, represents a far more intriguing and tricky dilemma than a margin of 34 years. …

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