Rounding off the Sondheim 80th birthday celebrations that seem, themselves, to have lasted 80 years, we get the Donmar Warehouse's take on Passion
. Based on a 19th Century Italian novel, the story follows Giorgio, an Army Captain in love with Clara, a married woman. Leaving her behind when he's stationed in a remote mansion with numerous other officers whose troops have no actual fighting to do, he soon catches the eye of the Colonel's cousin, Fosca. Practically confined to her bed with what nowadays would probably be diagnosed as an eating disorder, the skeletal Fosca becomes obsessed with Giorgio after he treats her with some kindness.
I'd heard some very bad word of mouth about this show so maybe I was pleasantly surprised after low expectations. It certainly starts well, with Hot Ginger David Thaxton as Giorgio in white t-shirt and boxers doing what I believe the papers would call "romping" on a bed with Scarlett Strallen's Clara. He's pretty much covered up for the rest of the show though. (Iwan Lewis as Private Augenti is also pretty cute, or would be if he wasn't, like most of the soldiers, afflicted with a big greasy 'do and comedy facial hair.) The microscopic Elena Roger as Fosca gets some dark rings around her eyes to help make her look even more frail, and although musically I don't think the role shows off her vocal ability anywhere near enough, her performance (give or take some irritating swooning) has a real gothic creepiness to it: Like a miniature Norma Desmond, the relationship she entangles Giorgio into is obsessive, unhealthy, and based largely on blackmail. Call me a big ol' drama queen but I like that; just as I liked the suggestion that Allan Corduner's Doctor Tambourri is manipulating the Fosca/Giorgio relationship for reasons that aren't entirely benevolent.
If I can't agree with the people that hated the show, neither can I go along with the five-star reviews and declarations that this is a masterpiece. There's a reason for Sondheim's reputation for tunes that never want to resolve themselves into an actual song, and my god is that deserved here. It actually becomes quite frustrating how tunes threaten to develop and then, without exception, refuse to. There's a lot of recycling of melodies from himself as well - vanessaw
said she found many tunes familiar, and I recognised moments that sounded very much like "Something Just Broke" from Assassins
. With Sondheim doing the lyrics, the book is credited to his Into The Woods
collaborator James Lapine, but presumably the division of labour was a bit more complicated that, or they'd have each been writing random, unconnected lines: So haphazardly does spoken dialogue morph into a line of song and then back again.
I think the production does well with the material though. With Jamie Lloyd directing it has the relentless pace I've come to expect from his productions, even when the story itself threatens to hold things up. With no actual war to keep them busy, Lloyd has the men give little indication that they're meant to be soldiers, with their loosened uniforms and what appears at first to be a parade with rifles in fact being them about to play pool. Where the set's concerned, there's some high arched doors from Christopher Oram, and seriously, why don't Christopher Oram and high doorways just get a room? If Michael Grandage does
end up running the National some day, they're going to have to install some permanent archways onto the Lyttelton stage. Most of the titular passion on show is the rather twisted kind that Fosca displays (Vanessa was wiping away a tear by the end,) and I couldn't really believe in Thaxton and Strallen's relationship. At an hour and forty minutes with no interval, the show only just manages not to outstay its welcome. Ultimately I think it was worth reviving and is a decent evening's entertainment, but it's far from the work of genius that some critics are hailing, and more than once feels like Sondheim being wilfully "difficult" for the sake of it.Passion
by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is booking until the 27th of November at the Donmar Warehouse.