Review: Passion Play at Richmond Theatre

Review: Passion Play at Richmond Theatre

As a blistering portrait of marital deceit Peter Nichols’ Passion Play certainly achieves dramatic resonance, strikingly depicting the ways in which a long-established relationship can founder in the wake of deception, says Amanda Hodges 

First premiered in 1982 and now revived thirty-odd years later it still packs a hefty punch courtesy of some sparkling dialogue and strong performances from its leads although it does nonetheless feel like a play that engages the senses more rather than it does the heart.

James (Owen Teale) and Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) have been married for twenty-five years and have a comfortable, trusting relationship. Then one day James, an art restorer, begins a tentative affair with Kate (Annabel Scholey), a provocative young friend of theirs and everything begins to slowly unravel as the web of lies he spins strips bare what lies at the heart of their marriage, exposing the surprisingly tenuous foundation of what had initially appeared a solid relationship.  James’ profession means he is seen dealing with depictions of the ‘passion’ of the suffering Christ, an incisive counterpoint to the couple’s dramatic disintegration.

Nichols’ drama, gains much of its impact from the nifty device of having the couple’s alter egos portrayed in person on-stage in the characters of Jim (Oliver Cotton) and Nell (Samantha Bond), the unspoken thoughts of each individual given articulation in a way that is simultaneously both ruefully comic and also deeply poignant as we see each person struggling – vainly – to express their true feelings.

Hildegard Bechtler’s coolly modernist stage offers a striking backdrop to this intense marital drama. The central quartet of leads is happily rock-solid, Wanamaker in particular offering a really persuasive interpretation of a woman slowly losing her sure grip on life and love. Initially confident and playful, as the play progresses we witness a woman finding prolonged deception physically as well as psychologically damaging as Wanamaker’s body language, gradually shifting from exuberant to lethargic vividly conveys Eleanor’s painful implosion.

Teale too is good, his initial affability swiftly collapsing as we see the damaging effects of his selfish behaviour, as he passes responsibility for the failing relationship squarely over to Eleanor, suggesting she have counselling. All is justified by his need for personal autonomy.

Passion Play is certainly an interesting and powerful drama in some ways and David Leveaux’s production is stylishly executed but although it makes some sharp points about the cost of sexual betrayal and often does so with ingenuity, the ending is all too clearly anticipated and it’s not a play that ultimately offers much emotional satisfaction. 

Richmond Theatre

April 16 – 20

0844 871 7651


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