Original Film: Federico Fellini
Adaptor: Sally Cookson, Mike Ackers and Company
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer Kris Hallett
Federico Fellini’s films have always felt ripe for theatrical reinvention but haven’t always worked when they eventually hit the stage. For every successful production, think 8 ½ turned into terrific Broadway musical Nine by Maury Yeston, there have been as many flops. Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of La Strada opened and closed on Broadway in one night in 1969. Sally Cookson’s production thankfully has much more staying power than that. La Strada is another little gem of a show bursting with theatrical life and invention, that finds its own voice while honouring the original and marks Cookson out as our premier theatrical adaptor of work from other genres.
Cookson has developed this reputation by adding her own artistic voice to original narratives. It is not simply a case that she transposes the tale she wants to tell straight from page or screen to the stage, instead, she wrestles with it, develops it during rehearsals with her actors and creative team and then puts her own slant on the tale. Her previous adaptations of Jane Eyre, and Cinderella have put its heroine front and centre – women defining themselves in a man’s world. She has created the same focus here, Gelsomina may start a simple girl lost in a brutalist landscape but soon discovers a talent with a trumpet that puts her on an equal footing with the strongman that has bought her.
Audrey Bresson, fast becoming a regular at the Bristol Old Vic, has the sloping gait of Chaplin’s tramp that original film star Giuletta Masina was so praised for, but she also has something of the Katherine Hunter about her – a powerful theatrical creature wrapped up in her petite frame. Previously one has been drawn to her ethereal voice and ability to play good-natured sweetness without inducing toothache, but here she demonstrates another string to her bow, her inner clown. In a little over a year, she has given three performances at the Old Vic that prove she is a star. She is at the heart of a work that utilises its thirteen-member ensemble to its max – one that comprises artistes from all over the world – reading the cast biographies makes for an interesting 20 minute read. This ensemble mix helps make sense of a European tale and a very Mediterranean temperament. It is to the British actor’s detriment in tales like this to be measured and composed when they’re required to be wild and earthly. Mixing both together helps bring vibrancy and life to the stage.
Benji Bower’s score may not be as memorable as others he has provided but it is never less than functional and the two men who Gelsomina is torn between both provide vivid turns. Stuart Goodwin is a brute of a Zampano, dominating his assistant with physical violence while carousing his money away on beer and loose women while Bart Soroczynski’s Fool is playful, witty and a dab hand at the unicycle. Both may hold a secret torch for the tramp but neither will provide a knight in shining armour. Instead, they embark on a petty feud which will drift inevitably into a brutal conclusion.
Ultimately it is the women who come to dominate. For Cookson who has stood toe to toe with a giant and formed her own artistic response to a classic and for Bresson who is fast becoming a muse for some of the country’s most interesting and exciting theatre directors.
Runs until the 22 April | Image: Robert Day