As the play began its life on the Playhouse stage in 1992, West Yorkshire Playhouse are proud to revamp and revisit Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman.
Set in a small, cluttered attic, the intricately detailed set transforms the expansive Quarry theatre into an intimate space. The ‘passionate woman’ is Betty, a Leeds housewife who, on the day of her only son’s wedding, panics and questions just where her life went. Rooting through a loft full of keepsakes, certain objects evoke passionate memories, and even bring about the appearance of a long lost love.
Balancing multiple theatrical aspects, I feel the production struggles slightly when it comes to defining itself. Played as a naturalistic, soap-like family drama, the addition of a supernatural, ghostly figure seems a little at odds with the style. Decidedly enacted as a comedy, the script’s melancholic undertones often fall by the wayside. And I was unprepared for the over-the-top farce that ends the show in a giant hot air balloon. This was a great display, but somewhat out of sorts for the genre.
Having said that, the decisions made are very well executed. Creating a Sue Townsend or Alan Ayckbourn style atmosphere, Liza Goddard, as Betty, finds the comedy in every line. She whips the crowd to laughter every time she mentions something as simple as ‘Asda’, which is no mean feat. But, this scatty, chatty characterisation removes much scope for emotional credibility—repeatedly described as “passionate”, we fail to see much passion in the piece.
The focus on humour spans the well-written Yorkshire chit-chat, into moments of skillful slapstick comedy. Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit springs to mind, as the ghost from Betty’s past can be seen by no one else but her. As the impressive set rotates, we are placed on the precarious rooftop of the suburban house, wherein yet more physical comedy expectedly ensues.
This change of scenery, whilst somewhat farcical plot-wise, is a welcome injection of excitement into the everyday. Another such moment comes in the initial sighting of Craze, played by Hasan Dixon. This physical embodiment of the seventies (with a somewhat arbitrary Polish accent) walks onstage, as music and disco lights fill the auditorium, and Betty is able to escape her claustrophobic life (and set) in this theatrical and moving moment.
Craze’s character is played as a suitably charming lothario. Yet, the relationship between Betty and Craze is somewhat uncomfortable, as she has aged, whilst he, in his time warp, remains younger than her son. Contrastingly, the repartee between Betty and her son Mark, played comically by Antony Eden, reveals the play’s best double-act, with convincing chemistry. Goddard’s Betty speaks at a mile a minute, while her son looks on in disbelief. The pair’s shrill bickering balances with an honest warmth between them.
Beneath the playfulness and undeniable northern charm, lies quite a heart-wrenching story of dissatisfaction. Russell Dixon, as the father/husband Donald, plays a perfectly sarcastic “old bugger.” However, the result of this affable caricature is that we fail to fully empathise with Betty’s discontent. Whilst all the actors draw you in with friendly, funny performances, ultimately, the lead character is unlikeable. The play is only short (less than an hour and a half) so perhaps more time would have allowed for a more convincing emotional journey. But, as it stands, we watch a selfish woman living in a dream world, to the detriment of those who love her.
A Passionate Woman is certainly an enjoyable night of theatre, full of lively, visual and verbal comedy. But, for me, the underlying structure of the piece is questionable: emotional depth is sacrificed for silliness and spectacle. Had it been billed as a comedy, the show would be a roaring success, but the promise of “emotional drama” is a little under-delivered in this production.
Catch the show at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 8th April.