In the chronology of stage adultery, Passion Play falls just after Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1978) and shortly before Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982). Peter Nichols’s 1981 semi-farce puts a different, more questioning slant on the ethics of bed-hopping as middle-aged professionals live with the consequences of the social liberalism they espouse but cannot control.
James (a vain, rumpled Owen Teale) trysts with languid Kate (Annabel Scholey) behind the back of reliable wife Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker). Nothing dates sooner than sexual mores — in this technologically pre-lapsarian world, off-the-record sex is hindered by defunct phone boxes and letters that go astray in a ghastly Thomas Hardy-esque twist of fate. These days, they could have sorted it all out with a smartphone and email.
The abiding charm of Passion Play is its nifty deconstruction of the marital farce. The main characters have alter egos on stage (Oliver Cotton and Samantha Bond respectively), who reveal the doubts, vanities and inhibitions behind the smooth façade of married lives. Nichols also imbues the arguments about monogamy and trust with echoes of bigger questions about religion, morality and whether we should go a bit bonkers in midlife or accept that the thrills have gone. The persistent tug of these tensions is tight enough to keep it whirring along, largely because Wanamaker, with frizzy hair, odd yellow cardigans and unflattering trousers, exudes such dogged faith in marriage, when so much speaks against it. At her nadir, with Nell, her alter ego, whispering, “Keep your mind blank, think of nothing,” her face sets into a look of doll-like despair, a fine rendition of the misery of betrayal.
For all that, David Leveaux’s production at the Duke of York’s Theatre isn’t very passionate to watch, because it is really about types rather than rounded characters. James’s and Eleanor’s day jobs as a modern art restorer and a choral singer fail to ring true, even if it enables some mordant comedy when James times his return home after bedding Kate by listening to one of Eleanor’s endless choral performances: “That was the Agnus Dei . . . There’s only the Lux Aeterna to go.” If you don’t occasionally find yourself wondering anxiously where your other half is, you probably will after seeing this.
Despair and trickery are on the menu at the Noël Coward Theatre, where Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is revived with Michael Grandage directing and Daniel Radcliffe (for it is he) as Cripple Billy, who “has a sweet face if you ignore the rest of him”. Billy feigns fatal illness to escape the confines of an Aran island in the 1930s for Hollywood, “if they’ll take a crippled fella”.
You might wonder what the star of Harry Potter is doing in Inishmaan, and to be sure, so did I. Now pushing 24, Radcliffe has said that he is anxious not to be a one-trick pony and has broken Voldemort’s curse of youthful success by excelling in Equus. I’m not so sure that this play was a wise choice. Cripple Billy requires a limp, an Irish accent, a withered arm and control of the free-floating paradoxes, absurdities and verbal tics that the wickedly inventive McDonagh bestows on his cast and that is a tall order. Billy’s desire for a life far away from a place where the only sport of the local minx is throwing eggs at passers-by and randy curates is pathetic in the true sense of the word — but a wandering accent ended up located somewhere between Rada and Oireland. There have been more poignant, desperate Billys, but surely none acted by someone so beloved of the audience that when he gets a beating, a good third of the audience cried out in outraged anguish. The Cripple is not McDonagh at his snappiest — there is a limit to the number of times an egg being cracked on someone’s skull is funny, as Shakespeare worked out in King Lear some time ago. But there’s still much to treasure in McDonagh’s sharp send-up of his native country’s desire for distraction, grandiosity and self-mythologising: no more so than when a row between the local siren Helen (Sarah Greene) and her witless brother turns into a piteous lecture on the legacy of Michael Collins “or one of those fat ones anyway”.
Cruelty of a different order reigns supreme in Matilda, one of the best shows of the era. It is a credit to the RSC, Tim Minchin, Dennis Kelly and the legions of dancers, acrobats, escapologists, choreographers and a dizzying number of Matildas who have made the stage version of Roald Dahl’s classic an infectious triumph, now that the Broadway version has been garlanded with Tony awards .
The plot is a beguiling take on a child’s revenge on ghastly grown-ups. Matilda’s dim mum and dad wish she would watch more telly instead of reading books. A kindly teacher comes to the rescue but has reckoned without the blustering ignorance of Agatha Trunchbull, who wants to “break” the child to teach it or perhaps just for the fun of it. Of course, the whole thing is steeped in soggy educational dogma about the perils of discipline, but you can’t fault the dexterity and sheer wayward fun of Matthew Warchus’s direction, Minchin’s saucy lyrics and the subversive uprising of the naughtiest girl with telekinetic pretensions. It’s the stand-out family show of a generation and hats off to that.
Speaking of the little darlings and the welcome thought of entertaining them this summer without resorting to the lively repressions of Miss Trunchbull, let me pass on a top tip for free theatre. It is the second year of More London’s festival, which stages performances of Greek classics at the Scoop amphitheatre outside City Hall. This time, it’s Prince of Thebes for younger audiences and Oedipus and Antigone for those over 12 who have a higher threshold for the doomed Greek families and their gore.
It’s a terrific, inventive bid to bring such work to the widest possible audience and lives up to its pledge to be “inclusive, accessible and resolutely not dumbed-down”. Find a child, even one as stroppy as Matilda, and try it out from August 7.