"Observations on marriage and betrayal"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 22/03/17

Driving rain on the M5. Poor visibility. A sat-nav with a mind of its own. Hopeless signage. I arrive at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre a little less than serene. This play had better be worth it, I think, as I stomp along grimly. It was, dear reader. It was. Kay Mellor’s bitter-sweet ‘A Passionate Woman’ has wit, wisdom, warmth and poignancy, resonating with the audience at a profound level, as was evidenced by the conversations I overheard in the interval and after the play.

The story works at so many levels. Superficially, Betty (Lisa Goddard) is having a meltdown in the attic on the wedding day of her son Mark (Antony Eden), lost in dreams of Craze, (Hasan Dixon) the snake-hipped Lothario she had a fling with in the early days of her marriage to Donald (Russell Dixon). Note how the word ‘fling’ keeps it light. At another level, a very young housewife, bored with her marriage to a dull and steady man, dabbles with adultery. Call it ‘adultery’ and the shadows form. At its deepest level, ‘A Passionate Woman’ is a study in that darkest of themes – betrayal. It is so easy, as spectators in the sport of marriage-watching, to be judge and jury. This intelligent, compassionate play does not let us settle for lazy answers. Who betrays who? Betty by having an affair? Donald by being dull? Or does Donald become dull through knowing he has been cuckolded? Doting mothers favouring adorable toddlers over grumpy husbands? How about society’s part in allowing marriage at nineteen? Or biology by ruthlessly driving us towards mating and reproduction before we know anything about anything?

Audience members relate to this play because even if they have not embarked on that particular fairground ride, they will know friends and family who have. After a certain age it is possible to simultaneously feel for Betty and for Donald. Lisa Goddard and Russell Dixon show us a quiet, ordinary tragedy, set against a background of trips to Asda, without ever losing the humour and the humanity in their situation. Their performances are a joy to watch. As the catalyst, Hasan Dixon is dangerously charming and sexy, with some moves that should carry a health warning…

Even if we never rode the roller coaster, almost all of us went to the fair – young, giddy, hungry for adventure and passion. It is so easy to forget our younger, wilder selves as we grapple with the everyday reality of family and work, but to do so is another kind of betrayal. I have always believed it behoves us to remember – if only because that reduces our propensity to judge and blame. As soon as Lisa Goddard took off her ridiculous wedding hat and shook out her hair, the past became more vivid – dangerously so, as the past, with its memories of love and hope, is a seductive, enchanted forest from where it can be hard to return to the everyday. All too easy to get lost there.

Antony Eden’s beautifully observed Mark might have been about to marry, but not at nineteen. Kind and loving, yet exasperated and baffled, his wedding day would be memorable as the day he stopped seeing his parents as Mum and Dad; instead he began to discover Betty and Donald. I’m glad we had a glimpse of his bride (Emma Nairne-Thomas) because, despite all we know about the rough ride that is modern marriage, we are still prepared, at a pinch sometimes, to believe in the possibility of happiness.

Just occasionally audibility was a problem, particularly when everyone spoke at once. However, the entire creative team, led by director Paul Milton, does Kay Mellor’s excellent script proud. Michael Holt’s vastly symbolic attic set seemed acceptably satisfactory and workman-like at first glance, but it proved to be so much more than that. Without being obvious, the costumes and music evoked an era of Clodagh Rogers, Kathy Kirby and Bobby Vinton that many of us remembered, even if our own play-list would be different. Cue Elvis Presley’s ‘One Night.’

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