Peter Nichols' 1981 drama covers fairly familiar territory - marriage torn asunder by an adulterous affair. The fact that this production comes so soon after the Donmar's hit revival of another 1980s infidelity play, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, seems at first like a scheduling oversight. But on closer inspection, it's clear that, despite surface similarities, Passion Play is a very different beast.
Middle-aged couple Eleanor (Cherie Lunghi) and James (James Laurenson) have had a happy marriage for 25 years, so perfect that their daughters 'used to complain we were getting dull'. But when their close friend Albert dies, leaving behind a young mistress named Kate (Nicola Walker) who's suddenly very available, very randy and very much smitten with James, their cosy life is primed for a major shake-up. James allows himself to be seduced by Kate, thinking it's just a one-off indiscretion, but as she sinks her sexually voracious claws into him, his indifference turns to lust then to infatuation and finally obsession, causing his marriage to teeter in the balance.
What marks Passion Play out as really different is not the subject matter, but how it's tackled. Thanks to a neat - albeit very stagey - technique of Nichols', this is no ordinary love triangle. There are in fact five characters - and five fine actors - involved here because, once the duplicity begins, James and Eleanor are joined on stage by their alter-egos, Jim (Martin Jarvis) and Nell (Cheryl Campbell) who give voice to their inner thoughts.
This effect caused something of a sensation when it was used in the original production of Passion Play. It's no longer revolutionary, but it's still quite effective. With it and with Christopher Oram's slightly graduated set, director Michael Grandage achieves a real depth to the piece. Frequently, we're able to see two scenes played out at once - what's happening on the surface and what's hidden underneath. This reaches a stirring crescendo at the end of Act I as James, Eleanor and Kate recite polite 'official' letters bringing an end to the affair while the alter-egos battle to be heard expressing quite different emotions and intentions.
As Act II ensues, the interplay becomes increasingly muddled as the alter-egos cease to shadow and start to take over their owners which leads to some confusion over the ending. But what is clear is that, no matter how many times Ode to Joy is played in the background, there's no happy ending in Nichols' view.