Dramatic irony is a great theatrical tool. Double the irony, and you double the rewards.
James (Owen Teale), the middle-aged protagonist of Peter Nichols’s West End comedy “Passion Play,” commits adultery with a pneumatic and sexually liberated young photographer called Kate. He starts telling lies and half-truths to his musician wife Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker).
So far, so soapdish. The surprise comes when James’s alter-ego Jim (Oliver Cotton) enters the scene. Jim speaks out loud the thoughts in James’s mind, and is invisible to Eleanor.
“Talk more,” he urges in a panic, when an uncomfortable silence falls. “You feel alive,” he shouts joyfully when it appears that James has escaped detection.
He even blurts out that sex was a bit nerve-wracking with the uninhibited Kate.
Then there’s a coup. Eleanor also has an alter-ego called Nell (Samantha Bond), equally invisible to her husband, and she also has her own confessions to make.
“Oh, the mills of God!” groans Nell, when it seems that James is slow to pick up the hints dropped by his wife.
The play then becomes a complicated and darkly funny fugue as the heard and unheard voices overlap, interrupt and comment. Later the “invisible” characters become visible, adding a further layer of sophistication to the drama.
The complicated scenario is directed with admirable clarity and zip by David Leveaux, and it plays out on a simple living-room set (designs Hildegard Bechtler).
The use of Bach’s “St. John Passion” as well as other choral works between scenes -- a pun on the title of the play -- gives an extra kick too.
Sometimes the 1981 piece reveals its age. Kate is so sexually aggressive and so implausibly invulnerable that she feels more like a wish-fulfilling male fantasy of that era than a real character.
The other protagonists are much more perceptively portrayed, and their problems have a real tang of truth. When played by an excellent ensemble of actors skilled in comedy and pathos, the emotional rewards are great.
“I’m frightened alone,” admits Eleanor. The quiet despair in Wanamaker’s voice is worth the price of the ticket. Rating: ***.
Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” (1997) is revived at the Donmar Warehouse in an enjoyable production by Josie Rourke.
The action takes place in a quiet rural pub in Ireland. When a pretty woman from Dublin appears in the area, the sad local barflies try to impress her with ghost stories and supernatural tales.
If there’s not much plot, there’s a haunting tragi-comic atmosphere of loss and loneliness, and the cast does it full justice. Brian Cox is terrific as the melancholy mechanic Jack, who acts as peacemaker when egos get bruised: Who cares if his accent wobbles occasionally?
Dervla Kirwan is sweet as the anxious-to-please Valerie, and Ardal O’Hanlon (from “Father Ted”) gives a great turn as the impoverished Jim.
Designer Tom Scutt recreates a 1997 pub, complete with old-fashioned electric till and tired furniture. A fine setting for an hour and 40 minutes of storytelling pleasure. Rating: ****.
“Passion Play” is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. http://www.atgtickets.com or +44-844-871-7615
“The Weir” is at the Donmar Warehouse. Conor McPherson’s new play “The Night Alive” starts June 13. http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-871-7624
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.
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