Thirty years ago A Passionate Woman was first performed on the very same Courtyard stage. Now, in tribute to Kay Mellor who died last year, Leeds Playhouse mounts this stylish and pacey revival.
It’s a pity, in a way, that the later stages of the play are so well known as the dramatic and wonderfully eccentric shifts of tone are anticipated by the audience. So let’s get it over with: the play ends with the characters on a roof with a ladder, a hot air balloon and a fireman’s lift for company – all praise to designer Rose Revitt who is also responsible for some incongruous morning suits and top hats!
Mellor’s text manages to keep both the comedy of familiarity and fantasy, as well as a sensitive regard for the moment when old age bites. To begin with, Betty is alone in her loft tidying up, amusing us with tales of Asda and the excesses of her sister Margaret, now on her fourth “husband”, complaining about her mean and perpetually sour husband, Donald, who meanwhile is constantly shouting to her. It is, after all, her son Mark’s wedding day.
Eventually Mark enters the fray and Betty shifts her attack to Jo, his bride. From there, the plot’s erratic to-ing and fro-ing continues, hopping through characters, Johnny Mathis songs, time-periods and more. Finally, the set swings round to reveal the roof, with chimney pot and television aerial. Betty climbs higher and higher, supposedly in search of herself. Gradually more and more questions reveal themselves: Who is Mark’s father? How much did Donald know? Was Betty’s one-time Polish lover Craze a philanderer? And what will she decide to do next?
Katherine Dow Blyton (Betty) retains the audience’s sympathy throughout, despite her eccentric decisions, with Tess Seddon’s production keeping the attention on her throughout, except for a telling scene, typically blending comedy and pathos, between Donald and Mark. Blyton never entirely loses the matter-of-fact tone with which she speaks of Asda cheeses, a middle-aged housewife suddenly realising that she has lost her best years.
The three men support her admirably. As Mark Tom Lorcan tries desperately to get her to see sense and ends up being humiliated on a roof for his efforts. David Crellin is perfectly unimaginative as Donald, embarrassed by Mark’s response to his version of the three-sided relationship of Betty, Donald and Mark. And Michael Bijok captures the mystery of Craze perfectly: just who is/was he?