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Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at Hope Mill Theatre

A love triangle in a musical? How (un)original. Within the first minute, mind you, it is very much signature Stephen Sondheim music that starts washing over the audience, though Passion isn’t quite as wordy as some of his other shows. And it isn’t any old love triangle – Giorgio, an army captain (Dean John-Wilson) is in love with Clara (Kelly Price). But there’s Fosca (Ruthie Henshall), who is in love with Giorgio. She is, of course, perfectly entitled to be infatuated with whoever she wishes, except Fosca is the cousin of Giorgio’s commanding officer, Colonel Ricci (Tim Walton), and whatever her ailment is, it results in much screaming and yelling. Dr Tambourri (Ray Shell) will only state the obvious – that she is sick. Henshall’s Fosca moves around without difficulty, so I can only assume it’s a psychological rather than a physical issue.

Kelly Price and Ruthie Henshall, Passion - Hope Mill Theatre - Photo Mark Senior
Kelly Price and Ruthie Henshall, Passion – Hope Mill Theatre – Photo Mark Senior.

The stage backdrops comprise curtains on either side, and across the stage, moving columns with abstract designs that give the military’s living quarters – as well as every other setting – the feeling that it needs significant redecorating. The extensive repairs are, perhaps, indicative of the amount of work required on Giorgio’s part to sort his personal affairs out: Clara is a married woman anyway, and their relationship, which turns out to have been an affair, is brought to an abrupt pause by the nature of military operations – Giorgio is transferred elsewhere. No wonder Tambourri suggests another transfer when it transpires the whole thing with Fosca is getting out of hand.

There is perhaps more exposition than one might reasonably expect from a book musical: there is a duel, but both the build-up and the event itself are too quick, and otherwise there are plenty of letters flying around. The postal service in nineteenth-century Italy would appear to be more reliable than that of twenty-first century Britain, and there’s never the slightest hint of acknowledging the sheer volume of mail. Even The Phantom of the Opera makes light of there being yet more reading material.

Persistence pays, at least for Fosca, and Henshall does well to portray such a dislikeable and barely sympathetic character with poise and persuasion. Had she been less nuanced the Hall & Oates lyric would have come to mind every time she entered the stage: “Oh here she comes, she’s a man-eater.” This is, despite a bizarre storyline, a thoughtful exploration of love in its various forms and what it can do to people. John-Wilson’s Giorgio might well be a little stiff and aloof, but this fits the character, a military man who must maintain the high standards of his profession. Being a lover and not a fighter wouldn’t work in his chosen career, hence his swift agreement to the aforementioned duel.

There isn’t a list of musical numbers in the programme, because this isn’t a conventional musical, with the music and lyrics pushing the story forward, one tune after another, only allowing the audience to applaud twice throughout the whole performance, at the end of each half. I wasn’t entirely convinced the interval was strictly necessary, and indeed there have been previous productions that didn’t bother with one. The ensemble scenes with a number of soldiers gathered together, invariably to eat and/or drink, provided opportunities to come up for air in an otherwise near-relentlessly intense and earnest narrative.

One may not come away humming the melody to an all-singing, all-dancing jazz hands number, but Passion doesn’t try to be anything other than a story about the power of love, whatever ‘power’ and ‘love’ may mean. It gets a tad too melodramatic for my liking on occasion but otherwise, it’s an intriguing and fiery production. A five-piece band led by Yshani Perinpanayagam is occasionally dissonant, but this seems deliberately so, adding to the torment and heartache of the show’s characters.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Arguably Sondheim’s most lyrical and romantic work, Passion is a legendary musical based on Ettore Scola’s Italian film, Passion d’Amore. Situated in 19th Century Italy, the production tells the tale of a young soldier, Giorgio, who is obsessively pursued by the relation of his superior officer, Fosca – a woman prone to severe melancholy and mania.

Exploring the consequences of intense passion and obsessive adoration, Passion is a ravishing and thought-provoking look at the lengths people go to for desire.

Produced by Thomas Hopkins, Guy Chapman, Paul Schofield and Ruthie Henshall

Starring: Ruthie Henshall as Fosca | Kelly Price as Clara | Dean John-Wilson as Giorgio | Ray Shell as Doctor Tambourri | Juan Jackson as Count Ludovic/Lieutenant Barri | Tim Walton as Colonel Ricci | Steve Watts as Major Rizzolli/Fosca’s Father | Charlie Waddell as Sergeant Lombardi/Mistress | Danny Whitehead as Private Augenti/Young Fosca | Adam Robert Lewis as Lieutenant Torasso/Fosca’s Mother

Creative Team: Michael Strassen Director | Sundeep Sani Movement Director | Yshani Perinpanayagam Musical Director | Paul Schofield Musical Supervisor | Elin Steele Set & Costume Designer | Charlie Morgan Jones Lighting Designer | Dan Samson Sound Designer | Rob Kelly CDG/CSA Casting Director | Paul Callen Associate Director | Ed Zanders Orchestrator

Thursday 5th May – Sunday 5th June 2022
Hope Mill Theatre, 113 Pollard Street, Manchester M4 7JA

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