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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
FILUMENA
at the Almeida

NOT-EXACTLY-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
By JOHN NATHAN

  Edmund Wiseman, Clive Wood and Samantha Spiro/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

We begin with a generalisation, the British aren't very good when it comes to Latin temperaments. All those shrugging, gesticulating and emoting mannerisms can come across as awfully mannered when expressed by a north European with a decidedly pale and pasty pallor. Take Zoe Wanamaker in the National's 2007 production of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. Although Wanamaker launched herself into the minefield of Italian vowels, fiery rage and breast-heaving indignation that would make any Italian matriarch proud, she was always one of England's favourite actresses doing her best Italian job. 

In Michael Attenborough's solid but uninspired revival of Eduardo De Filippo's Filumena, a swarthy Samantha Spiro is a rare exception to the rule. In the title role, Spiro plays the former prostitute who dupes successful businessman Domenico (Clive Wood) into marrying her by pretending she is dying. The play opens just after she has leapt out of her deathbed, with Domenico, who has been her client for 25 years, raging about the betrayal of her recovery. 

Despite the fact that Attenborough went to the southern Italian city to research the play, there is not much here that feels authentic. Other than Spiro, who shoots witty and withering glances at her reluctant husband as he rails against the trick that entrapped him, there is little here that feels Neapolitan. The rest of the cast could have almost stepped out of an Oscar Wilde play. They are certainly white enough, except Sheila Reid as Filumena's elderly confidant. But that's only because the actress has "tanned up," a process that is politically acceptable but still uncomfortably close to "blacking up." Here, it might have been less of an issue if the tidemark of tan cream was not so visible below Reid's jaw line. So other than Spiro, and despite Wood's unreconstructed male, what's lacking here in a general rather than physical sense is what the Neapolitan Camorra might call Cahunas.

Even Robert Jones' meticulously detailed set of a pretty Naples courtyard – complete with green shutters and terracotta-coloured walls – looks like a theme park representation of the truth. Strange how reaching for realism can result in something so unrealistic.

Yet despite the necessary suspension of disbelief, Filippo's 1946 play is as sound a piece of work as you could wish for. As a heroine, Filumena may not be as compelling as Hedda, or as inspiring as Nora, but there is no doubting that when Filippo created her he greatly sympathised with Naples' female underclass. When Filumena describes her deprived childhood, and her entry as a naive girl into the world of prostitution, you get a sense of the author's almost Shavian social conscience.

That said, Tanya Ronder's new English version of the play manages to be both earthy and articulate. The shifts between drama and comedy are seamless, and the third act, set 10 months later, sees a delightful change in mood as Wood's Domenico – now divorced and on the verge of remarriage – attempts to subtly establish, against Filumena's wishes, which of her sons are his. Wood's Domenico is delightfully exasperated by the process, his manhood taking a knock as each potential son fails a test. But then it's a task made no easier by the fact that each of the young men here could have just as easily been born in New Jersey as Naples.

 


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SCHEDULE UPDATES -
Yes, Prime Minister contracts its run, while A Chorus Line expands its own.
POWERHOUSE OF THEATRE - After 11 years as the Almeida Theatre's artistic director, Michael Attenborough is stepping down to focus on directing. 

SONGS FROM THE HEART - Once the Tony-Award winning musical is set to hit London in January.


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