Three of hearts

~ The Observer, 31/03/1996~

Stephen Sondheim's latest musical is a terrific, triangular tale of obsessive love

Stephen Sondheim's Fosca, like Puccini's Tosca, dies for love in an Italian military setting. Passion (1994) is not Sondheim's best musical, but it may well prove his most insinuating. It incorporates many elements of nineteenth- century romantic opera: physical malformation, disease, unrequited love, letters and hysteria, while offering an aesthetic alternative to the lush excesses of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom and Sunset Boulevard, both comparable studies in one-sided romantic obsession with dire and exultant consequences.

The source is an 1869 novel by Igino Tarchetti which Sondheim first absorbed in Passione d'Amore, a 1981 movie by Ettore Scola. The setting is Milan, and a provincial garrison in 1863, shortly after the unification of Italy. Two near-naked bodies writhe in ecstasy. Clara (Helen Hobson) is a married woman, Giorgio (Michael Ball) an officer and veteran of the Crimean War. Posted to the countryside, Giorgio becomes an object of desire for his new Colonel's shut-away cousin, Fosca, a freakish spinster in her late twenties; she suffers hysterical convulsions, was betrayed by a swinish Austrian count, and is yellow with ugliness.

Clara and Fosca the Light and the Dark demonstrate aspects of love with Giorgio on their minds: there are conditions and limits to Clara's commitment, none at all to Fosca's. Giorgio learns this the hard way. Sondheim's music and lyrics are virtually untouched by the Manhattan wordly, wordy wisdom that characterises Company (newly triumphant in Sam Mendes's blistering ensemble revival at the Albery).

The military chorus, which includes Hugh Ross (as the doctor), David Firth and Simon Green - the latter soaring in a glorious Christmas hymn - contains sardonic echoes of A Little Night Music, a strain of the dark lyricism in Sweeney Todd; but the show lacks the liberating jauntiness of Into the Woods or the governing, ironic inversions of Assassins, where the wish-fulfilment of disappointed individuals in a democratic society admits presidential murder as a symptom of national insecurity.

Without `numbers' or `show-stoppers', Sondheim weaves a technical tapestry of letters and confessions that is brilliantly sustained, down to the finest detail of James Lapine's cleverly organised book. Fosca thanks Giorgio for giving her a copy of Rousseau's Julie, another tale of bizarre, triangular passion and Passion carries with it throughout a sense of endurance and suffering, as in the Gospels, and of a price paid for secular, pagan lust. The central trio inhabit their own correspondence, overlapping in the action and on their own impulses: the high point is Fosca's dictation of a letter she wants Giorgio to write in which she manipulates the developing texture by having him say: `I wish that I could love you.' Jeremy Sams's exemplary production, with a gorgeous design of burnished panels by Paul Farnsworth, poetic lighting by Mark Henderson and meticulous musical direction by Paul Gemignani and Mark W. Dorrell, is brilliantly acted and sung. Maria Friedman's skulking, vocally tremendous Fosca is one of the great performances of our musical stage, growing from tremulous, gnawing agitation - she savagely grasps Giorgio's hand under the table at dinner - to full-throated, cataclysmic desperation and fulfilment. The first act (there was no interval in New York) ends on her blood-curdling scream, the second on an unprecedented smile of sickly radiance.

Michael Ball makes the romantic cypher that is Giorgio interesting by his attractive presence, his ability to indicate fissures in the indifference before the dam bursts and, especially, in his wonderful baritonal tenor voice. Helen Hobson is no less technically gifted or adroit as the vacuous mistress, charting an opposite journey to Fosca's from unbridled `Happiness' (the opening sensual sequence) to shrewish withdrawal.

A surreal and sexy coda to passionate entanglement is provided by Gloria's Lady into Fox, co-produced by the Crucible, Sheffield, adapted from David Garnett's 1922 novella by Neil Bartlett and set to music of taut and tantalising mischievousness by Nicolas Bloomfield at the piano. Garnett's grim fable of a married lady, Sylvia Tebrick (nee Fox), who turned into a vixen, bore cubs by a neighbouring Reynard and was torn to shreds by the hounds, is told straight and uninflected by Garnett in what H. G. Wells described as `an amazingly good story'.

Unsurprisingly, in Gloria's hands, it becomes a parable of misery and possessiveness in marriage overturned by the pursuit of animal freedom, a change stunningly represented by Louise Gold loosening her red hair and leading poor hubby (Dale Rapley) a delirious dance in their Sunday bestial tango. Leah Hausman's production on a Victorian parlour setting edged with fox fur (designed by Bartlett, lit by Jonathan Driscoll) is a study in power reversal, levelling out in a rhapsodic duet, beautifully sung by Rapley and Gold, before the transfigured Sylvia, who has exchanged her red dress for mystical white, is ravaged by dogs. Mr Trebick, we are told, recovers his reason and lives to a great age.

Where Sondheim makes with the letters, Nigel Williams gets down on mobile phones in Harry and Me, a fitfully funny, but finally flaccid fracas with lots of effing in the offing and the office of the Harry Harrod TV chat show. Harry is yesterday's news, diving down the ratings and into the pub, whence he emerges in the second act, blinking like a mole in the unaccustomed light.

His producer, Ray Goodenough (the irrepressible Ron Cook), is trying to lure a hopeless pop singer, Dave Hewitt, into the celebrity spot for the next show, but cannot ease the gig out of his agent. Nor can the researcher, Tracy (Sheila Hancock). They resort to funny voices and a ceaseless stream of double-barrelled phone calls to other offices, to Harry, to people in the pub with Harry, and to each other. The glorious Hancock exploits her revue background while switching phones and accents as an Irish folk singer, a Dutch agent and a snooty Taunton solicitor chasing the agent on a trumped-up rape charge. The singer's wife is similarly assailed by Ray and Tracy as Scottish booking agents and African representatives of Alcoholics Anonymous.

When Harry (Dudley Sutton) shows up, you wonder how this lobotomised dunderhead ever paddled in the shallows of the ratings, let alone crested any sort of media wave. The play is technically repetitive - Ray's limited vocabulary of sustained abuse is neither funny nor shocking after five minutes - and implausibly mawkish. Too much uninteresting information is held back to no good effect in James Macdonald's feeble production. The TV programme has been pulled, Harry's son is dying of Aids, Tracy's cancer has spread, and Ray finally informs the looming, unseen Dave that it's good to talk. Phones are the barrier, an irony as lost on Ray as it is on Uncle Bob Hoskins in the TV ads, though not, presumably, on the author. Hard to tell, though.

Infinitely more stylish and engrossing is the Nottingham revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (1966), the playwright's last, long distant hit before the recent Three Tall Women. Tom Cairns, directing and designing, makes aesthetic virtue of the piece's stilted artificiality. Eleanor Bron is magnificent as Agnes the hostess, silken with strangeness, drifting towards madness, in a cold, monumental house of green shadows, curvilinear white wall and oval skylight.

The play, heavily influenced by Eliot's The Family Reunion, is restored as both a fascinating classic and potent symptom of the American nightmare of communal disintegration. Neighbours, gripped by terror, come for a drink and claim sanctuary. There's even a gun waved prophetically around the domestic hearth. Dawn breaks, and with the terror comes the plague. The company steels itself for a new day of pain and alcohol, all passion spent, all love on hold. Cue for a song, Mr Sondheim?

Passion Queen's, London W1 (0171-494 5590); Lady into Fox Lyric Hammersmith Studio, London W6 (0181-741 2311); Harry and Me Royal Court, London SW1 (0171-730 1745); A Delicate Balance Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419)

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