Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Jamie Lloyd's revival of Passion has been timed to mark the 80th birthday of the world's most popular musicals genius, Stephen Sondheim. The Donmar is doing the master proud with a season of events and gets off to a good start, thanks to a well-chosen central trio in this tale that, from its opening seconds, lives up to the billing.
Passion has many of the qualities of a tug of love ghost story of the Blithe Spirit (or numerous other examples) variety with the minor issue that the ghost is not quite dead for most of its 100 minute duration.
David Thaxton and Scarlett Strallen make a really beautiful couple playing Giorgio and Clara. He is a dashing army officer and she a blonde wife and mother, but sadly someone else's.
They conduct a steamy affair in Milan, as Italy wages war in the mid-1860s. Their tale is nominally that of the novelist, Iginio Ugo Tarchetti who wrote Fosca. That is the work on which James Lapine based his book for Sondheim, with whom he also collaborated elsewhere, notably on Sunday in the Park with George.
The Fosca of the title is a doomed invalid played by Elena (Evita) Roger, wren-like as the text demands but with a terrifying tenacity. She is the cousin of Giorgio's Colonel (David Birrell's Ricci) at his new posting, her presence only initially apparent due to a chilling line in blood-curdling screams.
The loving couple correspond constantly, turning the play into a semi-epistolary piece that expounds and repeats their love, helped by the composer's love for haunting tunes and songs that, like tuneful musical boomerangs, keep coming back.
Fosca may be at death's door, but she can manipulate with the best of stage and screen anti-heroines, soon drawing poor Giorgio to her bedside and playing a whole hand of guilt cards in an effort to persuade him to declare undying love.
This is all sad and at times as trying for us as him. However, the writers eventually require their audience to make a record-breaking leap of faith. If one can do so, and it may not be possible for some, the result is deeply moving.
That owes much to the perfect pairing of David Thaxton and Scarlett Strallen in both singing and acting terms, plus the fragile malignity conveyed by Elena Roger.
Designer Christopher Oram who usually cuts everything to the bone (or back wall anyway) at the Donmar uses a relatively lavish set and costumes, creating a gigantic mural based on classical art and filled with lovers and cherubs to comment on the drama.
Passion is the kind of Sondheim musical that uses song to advance and illuminate the story, rather than to bring the house down with number one hits. Therefore, visitors might not leave the theatre humming more than the odd tune but, instead, should feel as if they have enjoyed a pacy evening of period storytelling, accompanied by an attractive and well-delivered score.
Playing until 27 November
Reviewer: Philip Fisher