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Passion starring Ruthie Henshall at Hope Mill Theatre – review

The Sondheim-Lapine musical runs until 5 June

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Ruthie Henshall and Dean John-Wilson in Passion
© Mark Senior

Last week, a constellation of stars assembled in London for a celebration of Stephen Sondheim's work. Now Manchester's Hope Mill picks up the baton with one of the musical master's later shows, co-written with James Lapine. While the play doesn't emerge as a dazzling apotheosis of his preeminent career, Michael Strassen's full-bodied production makes full use of its opportunities to display the unequivocal musical might of its own star power.

Set in 19th century Milan, the plot follows handsome soldier Giorgio whose affair with a married woman is strained when he's transferred to a military outpost. But the remoteness and distance soon becomes less of a threat than the fervent affection of his colonel's cousin, Fosca, for whom his cultural knowledge is as attractive as his good looks.

As though her inescapability is fated from the start, Ruthie Henshall's Fosca paces in the upstage corner as we enter to the two lovers in the throws of passion. The white bedsheet in which they wrap themselves never really leaves; the site of lovemaking constantly calls them through the sheets draping down the stage wings. Elin Steele's design also uses sliding panels to represent the two women on parallel tracks, passing through and crossing over each other, pulling away from Giorgio's grasp.

Almost immediately, however, the show imposes a wall of melancholy that's hard to penetrate. It's all so heavily freighted with maudlin emotion, it's hard to find a way in to the stakes. Repeatedly striking the same anguished note, with little counterpoint or texture, particularly in the first half, it feels dreary and overblown. It's also a challenge to make the initially one-sided, almost coercive relationship investable or convincing. Dean John-Wilson's Giorgio is so stiff and tightly wound in Fosca's company, his jaw so often clenched, you don't see him gradually loosen and sink into her advances.

Strassen's traditional staging doesn't clear the stuffiness, but compensates with bracing musical performances. Henshall's richness complements the sumptuous woodwind and piano plinks and glissandos. The throatiness of her voice suggests she speaks not with breath but the smoke of embers burning inside her. It also carries both a piercing clarity, reflective of her switching between seduction and lucidity. She conveys the brittleness of a woman isolated by the buffeting of her all-male chauvinistic company. When she first appears, her feverishness — her antic tilting of her head aslant, eyes screwed shut, bent over the table — seems to realise the pathologising of women's displays of emotion, as well as her fraught isolation and how she's ignited by him.

The piece is most interesting in its study of the devastation of fading beauty than unrequited love. The backwall is covered with a vast landscape painting gone to rot. It's blotted with black mould, and brown rust seeps up the base of arches. Charlie Morgan Jones lights it with bleached white or sunset hues, and casts silhouettes against it. Clara's "Sunset Letter" song, triggered by noticing a white hair, takes on extra significance as though she could blanch into the white sheets. With beauty and vitality referenced in terms of the blooming of flowers in Fosca's garden, to age or be ugly means to wilt and die.

It also relishes the linguistic act of seduction, from its early declaration: "We'll make love with our words". When she implores him to say their names together, there is, as she observes, a musicality to the crispness of Fosca's consonants sounded alongside Giorgio's floating vowels. The focus on words extends to the epistolary structure, but the exposition and interiority through letters is repetitive and dramatically leaden.

But there are moments as powerful as anything you'd hope to see. In the finale, we see Giorgio doubled over in pain as she was, the colour and beauty drained out of them so they now appear themselves dark blotches on that backdrop, as the light slowly fades out too to black.