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Review Round-up: Critics Gripped by Passion?

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In celebration of the 80th birthday of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the Donmar Warehouse has revived his 1994 musical Passion, a haunting gothic tale of love, desire and obsession, which opened last night (21 September 2010, previews from 10 September) and continues until 27 November.

David Thaxton stars as the hero Giorgio, a young officer separated from his mistress Clara (Scarlett Strallen), and sent away to a remote army outpost. There he’s relentlessly pursued by the devoted Fosca (Elena Roger), his commanding officer’s ailing cousin.

Passion is helmed by Donmar associate Jamie Lloyd, who previously directed Roger to Olivier Award-winning effect in the Donmar’s 2008 revival of Piaf, which also transferred to the West End. The new production, the centrepiece of the Donmar’s Sondheim at 80 season, is designed by Christopher Oram, with musical direction by Alan Williams.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “In writing a romantic musical about consuming love, Stephen Sondheim wrote a show that is hard to like. The music is flat and uninspired for long stretches, almost shockingly banal at the start, and not really redeemed by some good anthems and chorales towards the end … Elena Roger is radiant even when supposedly hideous. Scarlet Strallen sings her letters, sometimes invading the soldiers’ table in the outpost, and basks in perennial happiness until she realises there’s another woman. Giorgio is sung with sterling bravura by David Thaxton, but his acting is full of face-pulls, and there’s no coherent emotional signal … Passion was under-heated first time round, and it’s still cooling.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “I have rarely posed as a Sondheimite, and the reverence with which he is regarded by his hard-core fans has often struck me as faintly embarrassing … Yet I watched Jamie Lloyd’s superb new production in a state of rapt concentration, and at the end felt I had witnessed a masterpiece … Elena Roger with her huge eyes, hungry mouth and waif-like fragility is by turns repulsive, menacing and finally wreathed with the rapture of love as Fosca. The burly David Thaxton, who makes her seem like a doll in his arms, powerfully captures the progress of an initially bland young man into the coils of inescapable passion, while Scarlett Strallen suggests a far more wholesome sexuality as his mistress … You may either love or hate this show, but it is impossible to feel indifferent to its raw power and emotional candour.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Passion is a highly unconventional musical. While it has Stephen Sondheim’s trademark mix of sentiment, lyricism and irony, the music, which at times almost dissolves into dissonance, lacks the sort of tunes that impose themselves on the memory … Yet Sondheim’s score possesses a pointed, even argumentative quality that insinuates itself into the imagination … While the format may be conventional, Sondheim suffuses it with darkness. It’s clear from the moment we first see Fosca that obsession is likely to be the death of her. Images of power, manipulation and illness pervade her story. Elena Roger makes Fosca a doll-like, otherworldly creation. Her voice is explosive, yet can convey great delicacy … Yet Passion, despite its gorgeousness, feels cold.”

  • Libby Purves in The Times (five stars) - “Looking back in a daze at this violent production, it is easy to laugh off the gothic gloom. During it, you can’t. The intimacy of the Donmar – smell the candlewax, the gunpowder – is matched by the intense musical score and by performances that carry you through, headfirst and helpless … The moment Elena Roger steps onstage, drab-veiled, great eyes staring from dark sockets, the air thickens. It is impossible to do justice to her Fosca, even if you saw her as Piaf under the same director Jamie Lloyd … Thaxton conveys the big dragoon’s transformation well, David Birrell brings dignity to the colonel and Allan Corduner to the doctor. The chorus of officers works well. But it is Roger who holds you mesmerised, whether in shameless pursuit or victorious metamorphosis … The fifth star is all hers.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Over the years the Donmar has loyally revived some of Stephen Sondheim's least-loved musicals, such as Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along. Now, in celebration of the composer's 80th birthday, it brings us a Sondheim show that has not only been somewhat marginalised but is itself about love's unpredictability. And, if the result is a triumph, it is because of the production's enfolding intimacy and an imaginative stroke of casting … In short, this is a show about the incurable obsessiveness of love; and the idea is expressed not just through Roger's performance but through the fluency of Lloyd's staging … Maybe this will never be Sondheim's most loved show; but what this production beautifully communicates is the unstoppable force of passion.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) - "Tiny Elena Roger... has an astonishing voice. The moment she starts singing in this Stephen Sondheim musical... the thing starts to motor ... Miss Roger has a beautiful, tender purr to her singing ... Repeatedly, the audience may find itself tempted to shout ‘Don’t do it, mate!’ Not that we would dare in a Sondheim musical, but there are times when Giorgio’s innocence is frustratingly hard to believe. Mr Sondheim is a major talent, but can be elusive, dispensing melodies the way certain in-laws pour sherry — in maddeningly tiny dribs. This score lacks a memorable tune yet is perfectly easy on the ear ... Fosca is what in my student days we used to call a ‘plate smasher’, the sort of young woman who would snip your trousers to ribbons if she felt neglected. In Miss Roger’s highly capable hands she alternates dewy, cross-eyed devotion with piercing stares of hawkish intensity. And that voice? Passion in a female lynx’s larynx."

    - Catherine Love

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