Wednesday, 4 April 2012


4/4/12, Almeida

2 hrs. A heart-warming, old-fashioned play saved from sentimentality by its honest depiction of its characters' frailties and, in this production, by fine performances from Samantha Spiro (last seen in the Court's Chicken Soup with Barley) as Filumena, the mistress who schemes to get her lover of 27 years to marry her to legitimise her three sons, only one of which is his (and she won't say which), and Clive Wood (last seen as the gay squadron leader in Flare Path) as Don Domenico, the ageing cock of the walk.

The set by Robert Jones a courtyard bathed in rich Neapolitan light in a posh house with balconies and flowers and all other appurtenances (which a couple of hints in the text suggested was originally meant to be the living room of an apartment). But the warm glow is deliberately at odds with some of the content, notably the monologues from Filumena and her old maid, Rosalio, about their past lives spent in the extreme poverty of the Naples slums. The object of the satire is male vanity, and especially sexual vanity, which I suppose helps it to have lasted.

Don Domenico has treated the illiterate Filumena appallingly, deserting her for months at a time (she was working in "the house on the hill" when he first met her), failing to marry her when his wife died, carrying on with an attractive young nurse when he thinks she's dying; she repays him by telling him that she has, unbeknown to him, three illegitimate sons she's set up in business as a plumber, a tailor and a clerk-with-ambitions-to-become-a-writer with money she's stolen from him down the years. When he throws her out before the interval, after discovering she tricked him into marriage by pretending she was dying, she tells him one of the three is his. Which is how when we came back from the interval we found them some months later on the brink of marriage, with the Don trying to work out which is most like him (it turns out none of them can sing, unlike him; and they're all womanisers, like him) and to get all three to call him "father".

Though premiered in 1946 there's not a mention of the war or Fascism: part of its appeal at the time must have been that it takes place in a Neapolitan never-never land; its continuing appeal lies in the robustness of its plotting -- plenty of twists in the first half to keep you guessing -- and its nods towards the reality of Neapolitan poverty.

The house only half full, and some of the laughs were slow in coming. Maybe the Almeida's regular audience thought it didn't sound arty or challenging enough. Like most plays that have lasted, though, it turned out to have strong theatrical legs.

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