Life must be one eternal déjà vu for playwright Peter Nichols, who seems condemned to only be remembered for three plays out of a decades-long career. And – not for the first time – all three have received revivals in just a couple of months: ‘Privates on Parade’ was recently at the Noël Coward, ‘ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ plays at the Rose in Kingston, and now 1981’s dark adultery comedy ‘Passion Play’ comes to the West End in a production starring Zoë Wanamaker.
Like 'Privates' and 'Joe Egg', 'Passion Play' is about ordinary cracking up under psycholgical pressure. Owen Teale is James, an affable painting restorer who has gone through 25 years of marriage to Wanamaker’s Eleanor without an adulterous thought entering his head until the day Annabel Scholey’s improbably sex crazed younger woman Kate fixes him in her voracious sights. The affair comes to light – but it turns out Eleanor has some secrets of her own.
At the core of David Leveaux’s revival is some nimble writing and four solid performances: Wanamaker and Teale are joined by Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton as their inner voices – a potential gimmick deployed with great deftness. Wanamaker’s bright, brittle Eleanor is particularly good – we can feel her pain and confusion as she ties herself up into emotional knots over her hurt at James’s betrayal, knowing that on one level it is unfair to be so resentful. Nichols makes a persuasive suggestion that adultery is more a psychological act than a physical one.
But Scholey’s Kate serves to give the whole thing a nasty aftertaste. She’s simply deployed as a two-dimensional nymphomaniac with no inner life or interests beyond strutting about in her underwear and brazenly seducing older men.
Conceivably Nichols intended her to be much funnier, a farcically fit deus ex machina that James couldn’t possibly resist; conversely, some of the dialogue suggests he meant her to be plainer than the stunning Scholey, which would have greatly complicated the relationship. Either way, while I’m sure Scholey only did as her director asked, she feels out of place, a silly wank fantasy implanted into an intelligent black comedy that should know better.