Tess Seddon, Director of A Passionate Woman, talks about staging Kay Mellor’s incredible comedy drama in the stellar writer’s home city
It’s not often that the writer, director and lead character in a play are so deeply rooted in the same city. For iconic playwright and screenwriter Kay Mellor, director Tess Seddon, and Betty, the troubled protagonist at the heart of A Passionate Woman, that city is Leeds.
‘I feel so honoured to be directing this play in Kay’s home city,’ said Director Tess Seddon, who lives in Leeds, trained at Leeds Playhouse and runs her own company, TheatreState, in the city. ‘She 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.’
The play was first staged to great acclaim at the Playhouse 30 years ago and is returning to the same stage – the Courtyard – in memory of the much-missed writer, who died a year ago.
Tess was aware of Kay, her work, her popularity with TV audiences, and the esteem she was held in by actors and writers she’d supported, but she was not as aware of her theatrical work. In fact, the first time she saw A Passionate Woman was on TV.
‘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,’ she said. ‘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.’
The play is set in the 1990s with glimpses back into the 1950s as Betty reconsiders the decisions she’s made and the roads she’s left untravelled. But it has a timeless quality, reflecting the continuing dilemmas posed by mother-son and husband-wife relationships. The piece is also distinctly northern, firmly rooted 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,’ said Tess. ‘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!’
Kay wrote A Passionate Woman 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,’ Tess explained. ‘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?’
Tess trained as a director with James Brining, Artistic Director of the Playhouse, on Ode to Leeds, and Amy Leach, Deputy Artistic Director, on Romeo & Juliet. She also staged her first show as writer and director – Say Yes to Tess, a musical about how she ended up standing in the 2017 General Election – in the Bramall Rock Void studio at the Playhouse last year.
‘It feels exciting to now be unleashed on to one of the main stages,’ she said. ‘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. It’s for people who enjoy comedy, as well as those who are drawn to a strong emotional narrative. And 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,’ said Tess. ‘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.’