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Passion

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Based on the film Passione d'Amore (director: Ettore Scola) after Igino Tarchetti's novel Fosca
The Bridewell Theatre
(2004)

The Bridewell Theatre has been dangerously close to being faced with closure by the end of this month. Fortunately the money that was raised by an appeal to its audience plus funding provided by the Corporation of London and Arts Council England helped the theatre to sign a new two-year lease and it is now able to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Indeed, this venue has deserved such a rescue birthday-present - and it is great to see that audiences show passion for their theatres!

To mark the theatre's anniversary with something special, something that stirs hearts and soul, Artistic Director and Bridewell founder Carol Metcalfe has taken on Passion, the Tony Award winning musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), which premiered on Broadway in 1994.

It's a brave choice as this isn't one of Sondheim's strongest musicals. It is carried by one theme, echoing romance and gloomy fate, operatic recitatives, and hints of military marches, but lacks characteristic arias and driving climaxes. Based on the Ettore Scola film from 1981, Passione d'Amore, which was inspired by Tarchetti's gothic, serialised novel Fosca from 1869, Passion had its UK premiere in 1996 starring Maria Friedman, Helen Hobson and Michael Ball.

At the intimate Bridewell in Stuart Barr's clever orchestration for five musicians, Passion seems to have a better, more harrowing and even comfortable home. Here the journey of passion that turns into obsession becomes a nightmarish Pandora's box revealing love's toxic force when "without cause, without sense, without laws".

In Milan good-looking Captain Giorgio is enjoying a stormy love affair with Clara, a beautiful though married woman, when he is suddenly posted to another garrison in the mountains. Kate Arneil as Clara has a brisk, clear musical voice, but is left alone when it comes to sexual attraction and fiery love between her and Mark Carroll's Giorgio, who is sadly underplayed as a cipher for romance.

The remote surroundings and claustrophobic atmosphere have taken their toll on Giorgio, but the situation becomes dangerous only when Colonel Ricci's cousin, Fosca, steps into his life. Though she's ugly, driven by bitterness and suffering badly from a kind of neurasthenic illness - following an early fraudulent marriage - Fosca's strength lies in her terrifying craving for love and self-sacrificing behaviour that finally traps Giorgio's naïve kindness.

Clare Burt as Fosca is the evening's revelation: she is wonderfully expressive in living her mental monsters, the posture bent, continuously scratching her hands, showing sudden anger when she fears that she will fail in her demonic seduction of Giorgio and when she admits "I know I feel too much". Burt's voice mirrors the unforgiving turmoil - frail and rusty at one time, then powerful and round.

Carol Metcalfe directs with a strong hand and keeps the gloomy fairytale away from too much kitsch. She enhances Giorgio and Clara's undaunted happiness as they deliver their first song naturally being naked. And when it comes to Giorgio's breakdown after Fosca's death, this is a man who sickly begins to believe that he'd loved Fosca more deeply than Clara. But Metcalfe also inserts a glimpse of humour by letting the soldiers enact Fosca's deceptive marriage that left her heartbroken in a flashback. Carrie Southall provides an effective and practical set (with Flick Ansell's atmospheric light), though her costumes for the female characters are dire.

The cast is well chosen, with Matthew White as Colonel Ricci sitting comfortably in this role, lending it strength and credibility. Simon Masterton as Doctor Tambourri is an exciting impersonation of a physician whose good advice gets too close to being devilish and deceiving. Excellent timbres can be heard from Christopher Jay as Lieutenant Barri and David Menkin as Lieutenant Torasso, though it is an ensemble with fine voices all round as proven in the moments of a cappella singing.

So, well done Bridewell!

"Passion" plays until 3rd April 2004

Reviewer: Verena Winter