4 stars out of 5
A year after Mellor’s death, Tess Seddon directs her 1993 play marked by dry northern wit, knowing ridiculousness and deep, understated sadness
Kay Mellor’s play features a working-class woman of a certain age caught in an unfulfilling marriage and yearning for romance. Not nearly as well known as Shirley Valentine – even though it was cast in a comic vein and adapted for the screen in 2010 – maybe it ought to be.
Betty, played with no-nonsense charm by Katherine Dow Blyton, is a dutiful wife and mother who, dressed in a pink two-piece on the day of her son’s wedding, takes a life-changing detour into her loft. As she rummages among its dusty old boxes and suitcases, it becomes a portal, of a kind, back to a more vital past self.
Inspired by a story told to Mellor by her mother, the play is revived by Tess Seddon on the same stage where it premiered 30 years ago, and still chimes in its sense of regret. The biggest for Betty is her decision to end a secret affair with her now dead Polish lover, Craze (Michael Bijok).
Mellor made her name writing TV dramas and, at first, A Passionate Woman has the pace and predictable punchlines of a sitcom. The first act is part monologue, part exchange of dry northern wit between Betty and her bamboozled son (Tom Lorcan), who is trying to talk her down from the loft while her husband (David Crellin) looks for her downstairs.
Blooming into a daring script that straddles genres, it goes from gentle comedy to kitchen sink drama while this family pick over the fault lines in their relationships – and also ghost story, when Craze emerges in the loft as a minxish incarnation who cajoles Betty into a grand escape from her life.
Rose Revitt’s set is both real and hyperreal – a fitting combination for a salt-of-the-earth comedy that has dead young lovers roaming among the still living. Mellor’s dialogue is anchored in a wonderful West Yorkshire demotic and the father-son reckoning is especially powerful for its awkward humour and understated sadness.
Dow Blyton gradually gives Betty her depth, hinting at suicidal despair, which Mellor cunningly disguises as wry comedy. The end features a showdown on the roof as a hot air balloon floats into view. It bears a knowing note of the ridiculous – a surreal Shirley Valentine, indeed – and wins us over with its flamboyance.