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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor