On paper, A Passionate Woman should be a compelling story. Indeed, the TV adaptation starring Billie Piper and Sue Johnston was a well-pitched drama with an assured emotional arc.
Based on the true story of Kay Mellor’s own mother who, as a young woman, had a secret love affair with a Polish immigrant, the play follows Betty who is hiding out in the attic on her son’s wedding day. There, she discovers an old letter from the lover and the memories pour out.
It’s a romantic notion and, on hearing Mellor speak about the events, an interesting foundation for a play. How disappointing, then, that this four-hander instead is a confusing and unwelcoming production full of northern caricatures and farcical plot devices.
Mellor does a sterling job of portraying Betty embodying the northern, no nonsense, lady-of-a-certain-age very convincingly. In fact, the opening of the play is a joy as Betty reminisces about Ringtons Tea and Claudia Rogers and her recent visit to ‘that ASDA’. She sifts through the forgotten items and lets us into her life; the life of an average woman who’s led an unspectacular life. It is light, inoffensive humour and very satisfying for the packed auditorium. It is so far, so ‘eee, aren’t we all a bit daft up north’.
The problems begin when the rest of the characters are introduced. Betty’s son, Mark, here played by TV actor Anthony Lewis, appears in an incredulous amount of stress and pitches his performance so high, it is exhausting to watch. Indeed, the vocal technique needed is a little too much for Lewis and there are already signs of vocal strain. James Hornsby plays Betty’s husband and is as equally as loud as his hassled son.
Director, Gareth Tudor Price hasn’t quite decided whether this is a farce, a romantic comedy or a drama. The truly touching moments are lost in the mire because of this and it often feels like the actors are in different plays. The plot is thin with too much exposition, passable in some hands but this production is silly and the actors too shouty.
Foxton’s set is delightful and the audience are treated to nice surprises along the way, indeed, the magical appearance of the lover, Craze, is a highlight. Craze, played by the gorgeous Stuart Manning is a welcome relief to the continuous shouting match. His assured and engaging performance brings a much needed calmness to the stage. In all, it’s a disappointing experience and a great opportunity missed.