Review: Passion Play (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 27)

A tangled web of sexual temptation, lies, betrayal and marital breakdown are the dramatic ingredients in a major revival of Peter Nichols’ Passion Play, at Brighton immediately prior to a West End run at the beginning of May.

Written in 1981 at around the same time as several other writers were clearly vexed by middle age angst about infidelity and its impact on marriage and relationships, it may well be that the piece has nothing new to say on the subject – especially 30 years on.

But director David Leveaux and a faultless cast (who occasionally look as though they might just be enjoying it all too much) swish through this production with such style and aplomb that you can’t help but admire the freshness and a sense of fun that prevents this dark comedy becoming too black and miserable.

The play has always teetered on the brink of being pretentious, not least with the imaginative use of two actors playing “alter egos” of the central couple and speaking their unvoiced and even suppressed thoughts and moods as the relationship unravels and psychosis descends. Yet this production (played out on a gorgeous modernist set by Hildegard Bechtler) successfully avoids such affectation and rediscovers as much humour as possible before the comedy fizzles out in much the same way as the romance trickles out of the marriage, even though the ending remains somehow unresolved, unsatisfying and even – dare it be said – confusing.

Zoë Wanamaker finds all the necessary layers of distrust, depression, and despair as her 25-year-old marriage is ripped apart by her philandering husband, and there’s some nice touches of self-awareness as she interacts with her onstage conscience, played beautifully by Samantha Bond.

Owen Teale, as the middle-aged art restorer (he works on a painting of the passion of Christ as he finds a way to restore the passion in his own sex life), gets to the heart of who in many ways is the more interesting character, seduced away from a comfortable marriage by the merest flirtation of a younger and alluring widow (a skin-tinglingly seductive Annabel Scholey). His “counterpoint” is Oliver Cotton, delivering a rich performance of frustration and sensuality bordering on regret for the inevitable.

Sian Thomas is one of those actresses for whom you would break down a door just to hear her deliver nursery rhymes, and here she is wonderful as the vengeful old friend on whom so much of the plot turns.

Undoubtedly, this is an exciting new production of what could easily have been a tired and embarrassing play, and it will certainly take the West End by storm.

David Guest