Sondheim's very little night music

IMAGINE a new musical of Othello where the creators spell out the content. Let's call it Jealousy. Instead of individual numbers, Jealousy threads its motifs and refrains in and out of scenes, so characters share melodies and dispute the idea from different angles: "jealousy is ...", "jealousy isn't ...", "jealousy does ...", "jealousy doesn't ..." There's a new musical which does this, based on the film Passione d'Amore (1982), which itself is based on a 19th-century Italian novel, Fosca. The composer and lyricist is Stephen Sondheim, and the bookwriter is James Lapine. The melodies wind in and out of scenes as characters tell us: "love is ...", "love isn't ...", "love has ...", "love was ...". Passion, it emerges, is one big theme tune.

There is a plot. An army officer, Giorgio (Michael Ball), leaves his beautiful mistress, Clara (Helen Hobson), in Milan, when he is posted to a remote military outpost. Here he is pursued - stalked almost - by an ugly neurotic woman, Fosca (Maria Friedman), who wins his heart through sheer persistence. It's a standard piece of Romantic mush.

Two myths have sprung up about Passion. The first is that it is Sondheim's most passionate work. The second is that it is the musical where he abandons irony. Neither is true. Passion has considerably less emotional kick than Company or Into the Woods. It has none of their sharp, knotty revelations. None of their passion, in fact. It approaches its subject with the unflinching obviousness of its title.

The structure of the piece - whereby characters send each other letters - distances the action and steeps the show in irony. Ball can send Hobson a letter while he is with Friedman. Or Friedman can dictate a love letter to Ball and then ask Ball to sign his name rather than hers, thereby having made him write a love letter to her. The ironic comments stack up one after another.

Unlike earlier lyrics which glitter like hard-won gems, Sondheim's lyrics here are plainer than poor old Fosca:

"Oh, my love, my sweet

You've changed,

I've watched you change.

You're not the man I thought I knew."

It's a relief - in a flashback scene - to meet Fosca's cynical old lover, who argues, wittily:

"You gave me your money, I gave you my looks

And my charm

And my arm.

I would say that more than balances the books."

There's not enough of this worldly insight. The clumsy flashback, incidentally, when we discover why Friedman is in this mess, is typical of the musical's reliance on the novel. We work our way through episodic scenes - often heralded with snare drums and trumpet fanfare - as sung letters update us on how people feel. There is, understandably, a reported, second-hand quality here.

Jeremy Sams's production might have broken through this atmosphere (as sealed as an envelope) with the right cast. Here, they sing it well. As Giorgio, Michael Ball has the amiably contented look of someone who wouldn't let a tricky relationship get in the way of a good meal. His rich warm voice is happier with ardour and regret than with darker, more complex emotions. When he says his mind "races with a thousand thoughts", you feel it'll do fine chugging along with one or two. The psychological interest - at what moment, and why, does he leave a pretty woman for a plain one - remains a blur. My own belief is that lightning struck him in the storm sequence and he went bananas.

Maria Friedman makes a striking personal transformation to play Fosca: heavy make-up, dark hair, swept severely back, her intense, crisp delivery marking her out as a figure from melodrama. Friedman energetically extends her vibrato into her physical performance: shaky hands, wobbly walk and quivering chin. Helen Hobson has less room to manoeuvre as the underwritten mistress. But, despite their protestations ("I so enjoyed the novel by Rousseau", etc), none of the characters has depth. Nor does Sams find a heightened traumatic style for this dream-like, operatic show. Paul Farnsworth's set of glass windows, with distressed copper glazes, suggests we are inside a conservatory. It felt more like a hall of mirrors.

It's a headache for modern dramatists that so much contemporary dialogue takes place on the phone. Or worse, by fax, e-mail or on the Internet. Nigel Williams turns this problem on its head in his new comedy Harry and Me by making his cast spend the entire evening on the phone. A guest has dropped out of the Harry Harrod Show and producer and PA frantically ring round to get hold of the agent so that they can get hold of the agent's client's home number in order to persuade him to reconsider. (The plots one has to follow.) Meanwhile, producer and PA try to keep the presenter out of wine bars by talking to him on two mobiles at once.

A basic requirement for writing an on-stage/off-stage farce is a taste for ruthless logic. Comedy of this sort is a painstakingly gritty discipline on a par with rock climbing. Harry and Me turns out to be tiresome, patronising and slapdash. It feels as if Williams hasn't put in the hours. We never believe in the logic of what's happening off-stage, which makes it harder to believe in what's happening on-stage.

Despite all this, there is a reason to see the show. The cast. As the producer, an indefatigable Ron Cook runs round the office, jumps on sofas, hurls shoes at filing cabinets, unleashes torrents of expletives and whips up far more urgency than the situation merits. Dudley Sutton plays the bewildered chat-show host with dishevelled pathos. But as the resourceful PA, Sheila Hancock heads off into the stratosphere. She's superb. Her blonde hair stacked high, a sly smile running along her wide lips, she lights a fag and gives a languid sigh, as she purrs down the receiver. In Act Two, she gives us a dozen accents as she besieges the agent with calls. It's delightful. She's wasted in a show that might have been dictated from a car-phone.

Let me declare, briefly, an interest in Jimmy Murphy's first play, Brothers of the Brush. My own brother is one of the producers. End of declaration. But not end of interest. Murphy's play, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, three years ago, shares with other recent Irish plays, such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Soldier's Song, a close and revealing attention to everyday life. This one is set in a Dublin basement, where painters and decorators contend with winter cold, rats and a broken lavatory. One wants to go on strike, one wants to work at any cost. They all want to be foreman. Murphy convinces us fully about the immediate context - which is passionately articulated by this strong Irish cast - while allowing us to see the damaging political issues involved in labour relations in a time of recession.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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