The Leeds Playhouse – until 10 June 2023
Reviewed by Sal E Marino
The Leeds Playhouse was overflowing with love, laughter and big-hearty chuckles last night as the fabulous Katherine Dow Blyton wowed the audience by embodying Kay Mellor’s ‘Betty’. This new production of A Passionate Woman, as it’s 30 years since Leeds born Kay’s gem of a drama was first staged in the Courtyard theatre, must have had her family and friends swelling with pride as yet again; it was a rip-roaring success! Obviously, due to her passing in 2022, there was a tinge of sadness along with the giggles but her positive presence was much stronger and felt through her profound and straight-talking tongue-in-cheek dialogue.
Kay’s Mellor’s play (directed by Tess Seddon) is about a woman called Betty who’s son (Mark) is getting married and although she doesn’t realise it; she’s in deep pain. What she perceives as losing Mark (Tom Lorcan) is just the precipice of a something bigger that needs unearthing. This process is one in which a chain of events, energised by the trials we face in life, accumulate and finally explode so that we can get to the heart of the matter – which is always fear based. For Betty, what’s got to her is that she’s feeling old and Mark getting married has made her feel worried that she’ll become useless – just like the rubbish in the loft, forgotten. Not having a married son makes her feel like a younger person and that means she’s still alive! Alive means that she’s still got time to take a chance on life again and to go and live it – to be once more: A Passionate Woman! Now feeling like this and realising she’s stuck with her hapless and lacklustre husband Donald – Betty runs scared – and heads for a break-down. But what Betty and her family don’t realise is that the word and concept that’s been attached to the word, ‘break-down’, has been inverted and it’s actually a breakthrough!
At the beginning of the play, poor Mark, who is getting married in an hour, tries to coax his mum down from the loft she’s placed herself in and they go through some poignant exchanges where the roles of parent and child interchange. Mark is a beautiful human who is like his mum, passionate, and he displays this very clearly through showing his love for his mother and his future wife. He respects, loves and understands their strengths and vulnerabilities. And just as it seems like we’re going to have a predictable ending where by ‘they all lived happily after’ – Betty does something incredible – she manifests Craze! This life can’t go on for Betty anymore and so the puzzle needs solving. In order to experience her epiphany and thus smash the barriers to live life in freedom (instead of living like what’s expected of her sitting with Donald as he flicks through the TV channels) Betty wants PASSION. This frequency of passion that Betty conjures is a memory – one of music, lust and love. These are presented to her by the spirit of Craze (Michael Bijok); an old lover who she sometimes wonders about. When he ‘appears’, as he was back then and she was his ‘Beautiful Betty’, right there in front of us – Katherine Dow Blyton actually reverses her whole appearance through her aura. Without any tricks or props her essence goes back to when she was in her early 20s. It’s quite a scene.
Without giving too much away, secrets, betrayals and a broken, monotonous marriage start to unfold. Betty’s husband, Donald, played very authentically by David Crellin, enters into the drama and although it might be easy to just champion Betty and her struggles within their relationship, I really felt for him too. Donald’s also forgotten who he is in the rat-race of a system and that ground hog day existence so many of us end up in. Betty refuses to do it any more – enough is enough! The line Mellor wrote for her, ‘Do you know something, we’ve got to live life for every moment because this might be all we’ve got’ rings so true. Every moment is a gift – a present – and the more we live in the present then the more we are likely to live in love, harmony and happiness – the true design for humankind.
This play can appear light-hearted and fun – which it is – however it goes deep and makes you think about your own mortality. “Am I living my life to the full?” and “If not then what can I do about it?” are the questions that start to swim around in one’s mind? I love that about theatre and live performances – they stay with you because unlike Donald you don’t immediately switch to another channel once it’s finished and forget about it – you talk about it with the person next to you. This of course is unless they’re immediately on their phone straight as the appreciation of clapping starts which tragically some were and I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. If you do talk about what you’ve just experienced then you start to mull it over and might even be encouraged to start your own epiphany. “What did you think?” and “I liked the bit when … ” begin the thought processes that lead us to Mellor’s purpose for writing the play – which is obviously open to interpretation. For me it was about witnessing a woman’s awakening through exploring and ‘bottoming’ her shadow side and letting go of the concept of ‘time’. Betty had the incorrect view point that time is ‘slipping away from her’. Through her journey of – not so much ‘the dark soul of the night’ but more like ‘the crazy (Craze) woman in the loft’ – Betty transcends, literally into the clouds to find her pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Her face is lit up with joy and it’s coming from inside her – not outside or from another person.
A Passionate Woman is a play we need right now as more and more people are ‘tiring’ before they retire. Mellor is trying to tell us that it’s not too late – seize the day! Unfortunately for Betty this happens to be on the day of her son’s wedding but that’s why it worked for her, as barmy as it may seem. It had to be dramatic to ignite her into taking this big but necessary step which was leaving her old life behind her. Change was needed, a change of perspective about herself and her freedom of choice and will. A Passionate Woman is funny, surprising and makes you think and best of all feel. This is a big sparkly diamond of a show, that you’ll be so glad you went to see, and grateful for Kay and her wisdom to write it.