Passion review – thrilling singing in a rousing Sondheim reboot

Hope Mill theatre, Manchester
Ruthie Henshall and Kelly Price shine in a sophisticated and intimate staging of Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical

Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical is about that most intimate thing: romantic love. It feels all the more appropriate, then, for it to be staged on the up-close-and-personal stage of the Hope Mill.

At any one time, Dean John-Wilson’s Giorgio is either stationed in a provincial town with Ruthie Henshall’s Fosca or on leave in Milan with Kelly Price’s Clara. But when these love rivals sing at once, they are so close at hand they seem to claim his attention physically as well as emotionally. You can see why he can’t get them out of his head.

When an all-male chorus of soldiers strike up under the musical direction of Yshani Perinpanayagam, the force of their singing is thrilling. Yes, it seems eccentric of director Michael Strassen to play the opening scene so far forward only the front row can see it, but in those moments when the performers sing directly out to the audience, they make a special connection.

Inspired by Ettore Scola’s movie Passione d’Amore and, in turn, Iginio Tarchetti’s 1869 novel Fosca, the musical, with its book by James Lapine, is set among a company of soldiers in 19th-century Italy. That gives it a flavour of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the more so because Fosca, the colonel’s cousin, has a Cyrano-like love of literature and a belief in her own ugliness. Being unlucky in love, she also has a touch of Dickens’s Miss Havisham.

In her prim white dress and hair in a bun, Henshall is all stiff gestures and manic glares, a woman too constrained by her own body to express the broiling emotions within. By contrast, Price is fluid and sensual, moving freely with her instincts.

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They give forceful performances, even if the male-centric musical caricatures them as women helplessly governed by their own wayward natures. It argues that Giorgio’s fractious relationship with Fosca is ultimately more rewarding than his carefree affair with the married Clara. That is a sophisticated idea for a Broadway show, but in making the point, it pushes Fosca to hysterical extremes and makes Clara seem shallow. Caught in the middle, Giorgio can do no wrong.

Melodrama aside, the singing is excellent and the off-stage band bright and strident, creating a suitably impassioned show.