Review: Passion, Donmar Warehouse

“How can I have expectations? Look at me…”

Expectations are a funny thing. When Passion was first announced way back at the beginning of the year I was completely over-excited, Elena Roger returning with Jamie Lloyd directing to recapture some of that Piaf magic and a Sondheim musical I’d never heard, it really was one of my most anticipated theatrical events of the year. Fast forward to September and I am quite frankly close to being Sondheimed out with all of the productions celebrating his 80th year and there had been dark murmurings about how good Passion actually was. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, Passion is based on a film (Passione d’Amore) which was inspired by a book, Fosca. It centres on an unlikely love triangle: Giorgio, who is a soldier engaged in an affair in Milan with Clara, his married mistress, is billeted out to a provincial outpost where he meets his new regiment. He also meets Fosca, the sickly, obsessive cousin of his commanding officer with whom he strikes up an uneasy connection which soon changes his very understanding of the nature of love. For this production, some of the score has been cut by Sondheim, lyrics amended and even Lapine has got in on the action, reworking some of the book. (As it is the first time I’ve seen this show, I can’t comment on any of these changes and for your information, this is a review of a preview on 13th September)

First things first, it is just dull, and criminally so. The story is slow and unengaging, the script is at times just laughable and even the lyrics descend into clumsy triteness. But also at fault rather surprisingly, is Jamie Lloyd’s unremarkable direction. There’s far too much over-dramatic slumping to the floor and at least one laughable flounce (although there’s probably a drinking game in there, if you’re that way inclined), some dodgy choreography with snooker cues and soldiers eyeballing each other and people wandering across the stage to sing one line and then disappearing. By its nature, reading letters is difficult to make interesting, but when one cares so little for the protagonists, it becomes wearing: Clara keeps jumping on the dinner table to sing her way them, a staging choice I didn’t particularly care for, but when she started to sing about getting a grey hair two thirds of the way through, I was tempted to just up and leave.

I love Elena Roger, I really do, her performances in Evita and Piaf were brilliant, her recent cd is rarely off my iPod, but even I can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Her accent is just too thick here for Sondheim’s sharp lyricism but even her speaking voice didn’t have enough clarity in it, far too often I had little idea what she was actually saying or singing. And contrasting it with say Strallen’s enunciation, it really was glaring. She had her moments, Loving You was beautifully delivered and her reactive acting to Giorgio’s final declaration was heartbreaking with real tears in her eyes (although with the blocking, only half the audience will see that, which is a shame). But it is such a difficult character, there aren’t too many consumptive singing anti-heroines around, and Roger is guilty of many of the falls to the floor as she slides to the overdramatic too often with a manic gleam in her eyes.

As the young army lieutenant at the centre of this love triangle, David Thaxton came off as wussy rather than sensitive, I never once believed he was a soldier, but crucially didn’t give us a reason to care for his dilemma which forms the crux of this show. I found his singing voice inoffensive but unremarkable and by and large, his performance just didn’t make anywhere near the impact it needed to. Scarlett Strallen fared a little better with a strong vocal performance, but played Clara with a little too much earnestness which meant I never believed there was any passion between the two of them. David Birrell as the Colonel and Allan Corduner as the Doctor made the best of their small roles. Alan Williams as the musical director is tucked away in a cupboard and whilst the music was fine, again I just didn’t feel anything special.

The audience reaction was curiously mixed: lots of cheers at the end, but we saw people leaving in the middle, the guy to our right had his head in his hands for most of the show and didn’t even applaud and there were lots of stifled giggles around (although some of the ruinous sniggering was too far away for us to hear!) 

In brighter news, there were two meals served on stage. A nice dinner of a piece of chargrilled meat, carrots and sauté potatoes was fine, but the second one of spaghetti with what I think was pesto sauce was a misguided choice. The poor guy who had to serve it out to six people struggled somewhat, as most of us do when dishing out spaghetti, but he also had to contend with freezing every so often whilst someone sang a random line of dialogue; also, there was nowhere near enough to make it look worthwhile, everyone ended up with a tiny portion: an army marches on its stomach don’t you know.

I found Passion to be singularly lacking in that very emotion and without that connection to the events on stage, it became a very disengaging night at the theatre. Yes, as a preview elements of this production should become smoother by opening night but for me, the issues I had were primarily with the show itself. Sondheim’s score is so dense and fragmented and clearly required more of me than I was prepared to give to this production but I still can’t shake the nagging suspicion that there is something of the Emperor’s new clothes about Passion.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 27th November
Note: there’s loud noises and strobe effects

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