Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine
Produced by Thomas Hopkins, Guy Chapman, Paul Schofield, Ruthie Henshall
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
May 5-June 5, 2022; 2hrs 10min
There’s something stunning about sitting five rows away from Ruthie Henshall in a tiny north Manchester theatre, and there’s something very special about Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre, a place with a lot of passion and more than a little bit of magic.
This is a theatre in which imagination is expected, risks are taken and little productions of huge artistic quality are consistently produced. This reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is no exception.
Originally on Broadway in 1994, Passion won four Tony awards including Best Musical; quite a feat for a mere 280-performance run. In this reimagined version, Henshall (also producing) plays the obsessive, manipulative, ailing older woman, Fosca, whose obsession with the young soldier, Giorgio, becomes her raison d’etre and ultimately destroys them both.
Adapted from a film – which itself was adapted from a bohemian Italian 19th Century novel – the story, the emotional intensity of its treatment and the quality of its performance puts us in mind of Puccini or Verdi. Here, though, the female lead is more complex and more conniving than those operatic heroines and themes of madness, disease, desire, love, sex and death, with swirling mists of jealousy and turmoil, run through Sondheim’s score – incredibly, rearranged for just five musicians.
A claustrophobic set, with enveloping, draped military fabric, impressionistic panels and disturbing lighting, evoke the pressure of excessive emotions in confined spaces. Here is a 19th century bursting with three-dimensional men and women, and their passions, seen through contemporary eyes.
Henshall’s performance is a masterclass. Her simmering alto and soaring soprano convey the covered emotion and the wild hysteria bursting forth. We feel her passion and her pain. Kelly Price as Clara is an admirable foil, and Dean John-Wilson’s Giorgio is torn between them with dramatic realism.
Highlights also come in the many and varied forms of the ensemble: operatic moments to rival Puccini, hilarious plays upon gender that we take seriously while we laugh, military formations with live trumpet and snare drum on stage, and a powerful representation of the ailing psyche of Giorgio, are all created in the form of the male chorus.
Such is the power of this reimagined performance, with so much investment from its producers and creators, expertly directed by Michael Strassen, that one could almost believe that, on a sunny Tuesday evening in Ancoats, if Sondheim had lived just a little bit longer, he might even have been sufficiently moved to make it over himself.
Tickets and info here