Tuesday, May 28

Tess Seddon talks about staging Kay Mellor’s first hit play, A Passionate Woman, at Leeds Playhouse

30 years ago Leeds Playhouse staged A Passionate Woman by local playwright Kay Mellor who went onto pen massive TV hits like Band of Gold and Fat Friends.

The play is set in the 1990s with glimpses back into the 1950s as Leeds woman Betty reconsiders the decisions she’s made, and the roads she’s left untravelled.

Now this troubled woman at the heart of the play is returning to the same stage – the Courtyard – in memory of the much-missed writer who died a year ago. It’s directed by Tess Seddon, who lives in Leeds, trained at Leeds Playhouse and runs her own company, TheatreState, in the city.

Tess Seddon explains why A Passionate Woman, with Emmerdale star Katherine Dow Blyton as Betty, is making a comeback three decades on.

Why choose this play to direct?

Kay was such an icon of northern writing and opened so many doors for so many northern creative people. To bring A Passionate Woman back in her memory, and in celebration of her work and legacy, feels like a huge honour.

I know you were aware of Kay’s rich TV back catalogue, and you’d only seen A Passionate Woman on the box.

When I actually sat down and read the script, I was so surprised at what a theatrical play it is. It’s like a pressure cooker. I was also struck by just how funny and, in turn, tragic it is. That’s one of the joys of directing this play – shifting from laugh-out-loud moments to moments of regret and loss.

The characters behave so badly, which is a lot of fun. They’re complex; constantly deflecting and unable to communicate properly with each other. I just love how Kay doesn’t hold back; she’s not scared that you might be shocked by their behaviour. Then she flips the switch, and you see their vulnerabilities, their regrets and what’s causing them to act like this.

This is a play about mother-son and husband-wife relationships, but it’s set in the home of an ordinary Leeds family living through an extraordinary, life-changing day.

What feels so northern about the play is the dryness of the humour, and the way the characters refuse to fully engage with how they feel, even in high pressure situations. ‘Kay created a beautiful flow in the dialogue that’s made for northern accents and for the northern sense of humour.

But it’s not just northern, it’s very specifically Leeds, which has felt like a real gift for me as a Leeds director. I’m reminded of the play everywhere I go in Leeds, especially when I see couples getting cross with each other in the supermarket.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Kay wrote this after a surprising chat with her mum in which she revealed she’d had an affair and kept it secret for years.

It stayed in her head for quite a while, then, when she wrote the play, she created different elements to disguise her mum. On press night 30 years ago a journalist asked Kay in the auditorium if Betty was based on someone she knew because it felt really personal. Kay said she couldn’t say, but her mum stood up and shouted: ‘it’s about me’. How brilliant is that?’ 

You’ve done a lot of work at the Playhouse, including your own musical, Say Yes to Tess, based on your experiences standing in the 2017 General Election that was in the Bramall Rock Void studio last year.

It feels exciting to now be unleashed onto one of the main stages. Initially, when I read the play, I thought how am I going to do this because – not giving away any secrets – there are some huge surreal spectacles to pull off. Luckily, you’re never alone as a director; there’s an amazing team of creatives, cast and crew who work with me. It feels really special to be making this step in my career at Leeds Playhouse where I feel so at home.

A Passionate Woman is a play that defies strict genres, but for many it’s a kitchen sink drama with lofty ambitions. Literally in Betty’s case as she retreats to the loft on her son’s wedding day to remember the past and plan her future.

I suspect the play will make some people reflect on their own relationship with passion and what we expect from our partners. Society places such a weight on us having all our needs met by a romantic partner. This play asks whether that serves us. How can we find a passion for living that comes from within?’

Most importantly, however, I hope audiences leave the auditorium feeling they’ve had a brilliant night out because this play has taken them on such an unexpected adventure.

A Passionate Woman is Leeds Playhouse from 20th May to 10th June. To book 0113 213 7700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org