Reviews West End & Central Published 10 May 2013

Passion Play

Duke of York's Theatre ⋄ 1st May - 3rd August 2013

Inner voices.

M. F. Jones

Peter Nichols’s frank portrait of a dissolving marriage, first seen at the RSC over three decades ago, is chiefly notable for its efforts to reduce actorly unemployment – the central couple provides not two, but four meaty lead roles. Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker) and James (Owen Teale), contentedly married for years, talk and fight and plead and argue their way through an inevitable break-up brought on by adultery, while everything that they don’t say out loud is uttered by identically-dressed embodiments of their inner selves, Nell (Samantha Bond) and Jim (Oliver Cotton).

Had Nichols developed the device no further, it would still have provided ample comic mileage, not only from the actual characters’ harmony or discord with the wishes of their counterparts, but also the inner voices’ sarcastic quips unheard in the real conversation. When James needs to think quickly to cover the tracks of his infidelity, Cotton is on hand to throw numerous suggestions at Teale, and berate him when he comes close to slipping. The funniest of the moments occurs when Wanamaker audibly answers a comment made by Bond, leading the other characters to assume that she is wildly drunk.

The characters don’t remain so simplistically divided, though. Once Eleanor discovers that James has re-ignited the affair, despite his assuring her that it had ended, the dialogue becomes messy. Eleanor shouts at Jim, and James grabs Nell; the quartet intertwine and overlap, suggesting that what goes unsaid is still heard somehow, that their communication transcends the spoken. Eventually, Nell and Jim are literally enacting a physical brawl while real Eleanor and James sit in silent despair.

This premise requires a lightness of touch if it is to avoid becoming overly conceptual. Regardless of the multiple exciting options at the playwright’s fingertips, becoming too concerned with the construct could have the adverse effect of distancing all four from the central issue and leaving the play with a load of frills and no foundation. Nichols navigates this with ease, roughing up all the edges and never losing sight of the underlying thrust – James’s unintended destruction of Eleanor.

The quartet of actors, too, execute this premise with deftness and delicacy. Two of these stage veterans together would be an uncommon treat; four is bordering on magical. Teale pulls off the least appealing role with aplomb, finding helplessness in James’s treachery and frankness in his subsequent honesty. Wanamaker is on equally fine form in the more sympathetic role of Eleanor, grounding the piece with her natural charm. Cotton makes the most of some great punchlines, delivering them with dogged energy, and Bond, most impressively of all, is both fierce and fragile.

The production design is uncomfortable – bare white walls, oppressively loud music, and loads of space in which to “go insane,” as Eleanor puts it. Against this backdrop of uncosiness, the players are thrown into stark relief. They look older, seem wearier, have fewer objects to hide behind. You long for a quilt or a cushion to soften the unintentional blows of a caring, cheating man. A simple premise beautifully executed. Passion Play slowly and inexorably breaks your heart.


M. F. Jones

Matthew trained with the National Youth Music Theatre (2002-3), and graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a joint honours degree in Classics and English. He is best known as one half of Frisky and Mannish, cabaret double-act and "global phenomenon" (The Times). The duo have performed at Sydney Opera House and Shepherd's Bush Empire, appeared on BBC2 and Radio 1, and enjoyed four sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. As an actor, he played the lead role in Steven Bloomer's Punch at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Other credits include: Oklahoma! (Sadler's Wells), The Threepenny Opera (Oxford Playhouse) and The Secret Garden (King's Head). He also works as a writer and composer

Passion Play Show Info

Directed by David Leveaux

Written by Peter Nichols

Cast includes Samantha Bond, Oliver Cotton, Annabel Scholey, Owen Teale, Siân Thomas, Zoë Wanamaker




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.