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Filumena, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Filumena, Almeida Theatre

Filumena, Almeida Theatre

Samantha Spiro follows where Judi Dench and Joan Plowright previously led in Italian theatrical mainstay

Samantha Spiro prays for a sign - or practises her best Eva Peron - in Eduardo De Filippo revivalHugo Glendinning

If it's possible to take a loving and empathic approach to decidedly intractable material, the director Michael Attenborough achieves precisely that with Filumena, in which Samantha Spiro follows on from (and surpasses) Judi Dench in author Eduardo De Filippo's title role of the one-time Neapolitan prostitute who in early middle age decides that what matters most is to be una mamma.

Staged on a terracotta, plant-filled stage dominated by an orange tree whose limbs extend out towards the theatre's upper level, the production looks as handsome as Spiro makes it sound, and it's only intermittently that you wonder of this peculiar and underwritten play how it ever achieved the reputation that it has. 

A major success back in the 1970s for Joan Plowright in a Franco Zeffirelli staging that remains the stuff of legend, Filumena is most accurately described as a caprice, and one can imagine Italians taking to il cuore a protracted fable, first seen in 1946, about a fragmented family made whole that comes accompanied by the necessary shedding of tears to seal the deal. The problem, though, is that for a good two-thirds of the (brief) action, the prevailing tone is one of sniping and spitefulness, especially in the Almeida's new English version from Tanya Ronder that plays up the potential for violence. (On at least two occasions, one character talks of killing another.) 

It would help if De Filippo actually dramatised the events and shifts in emotion that he describes

Talking of "the things I've been holding in here", Spiro unexpectedly puts one in mind of a different stage mother - Momma Rose in the musical Gypsy - and her regard for the wealthy, older Domenico Soriano (Clive Wood) whom she ends the play marrying seems so antagonistic for so much of the time that the two would seem to be well on their way to a relationship by way of Strindberg or Edward Albee, not the communal hug-in with which events conclude.

Clive Wood in FilumenaIt would help if De Filippo actually dramatised the events and shifts in emotion that he describes. As it is, one becomes aware early on of the volume of activity that is reported rather than shown, starting with Filumena faking her own death all the way through to a dramatic about-face from Wood's Domenico, a robust, craggy figure (pictured above right on Robert Jones's holiday-worthy set) who seems to have found his way to southern Italy by way of a Ted Hughes poem. (Or a Brando film: reminding onlookers of the degree to which he was once a contender, he sounds like a refugee from On the Waterfront.) And just as the illiterate Filumena's whoring past has to some extent to be taken on faith (the woman we see at the outset is such a scold that one can't imagine clients queuing up for her company), her maid Rosalia (an ever-impish Sheila Reid) gets a backstory of her own, which turns out to chime with Filumena's even as we are left wanting the drama to unfold in front of us for a change. 

As it is, we look on as Filumena assembles her three grown sons, all with different fathers, who have barely gathered amid the bougainvillea before they, too, are having a go at one another with gloves-off abandon. But scarcely has Domenico denounced this "newly formed tribe" and watched as Filumena packs her bags before 10 months elapse, marriage is back on the cards, and Domenico is busy trying to determine just which one of these lads might actually be his, a plot twist that a half-century later would be revisited (and inverted) in Mamma Mia!, which, come to think of it, might be a good alternative title for this play. 

And yet, there's no denying the vivid cut-and-thrust of Attenborough's production, which may have been intended as a riposte to the Almeida's previous tenant, The House of Bernarda Alba, a play about a woman who destroys her family by contrast with Filumena, who wants to build her family anew. Luke Norris, Richard Riddell and Brodie Ross do exceptionally well in the jokily conceived parts of the sons, and their simultaneously spoken "yes dad" near the end is both funny and unexpectedly sweet.

Spiro throughout is a marvel, whether knitting her brow into an assault weapon that one imagines has sustained this true survivor through many a hard time or blossoming, in accordance with the surrounding foliage, as her long-awaited nuptials finally loom. (Typically, though, even that part of the play is left in the wings.) And when the dry-eyed Filumena finally allows her tear ducts to open, well, I can report from where I was sitting that she wasn't the only one.

  • Filumena is at the Almeida Theatre until 12 May
One becomes aware early on of the volume of activity that is reported rather than shown


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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