La Strada – The HOUSE,Birmingham REP

Music: Benji Bower

Director: Sally Cookson

Reviewer: John Kennedy

It’s sixty-three years on fromLa Strada’s original cinematic release, Fellini’s Oscar-winning saccharine neo-realism road trip saga of poverty, abandonment and innocence betrayed. For auteurs, let alone dedicated fans, this stage adaptation might suggest risqué impertinence. Together with composer, Benji Bower’s live music arrangements of Nino Rota’s original songs and score, there’s a great deal riding on this performance. If not having seen the film – that ride might well be back-seat pillion seen through goggle glasses half darkly. It’s one of those existential calamari with Marmite or not moments.

The film drove Fellini to a nervous breakdown. Its debut screening at the Venice Film Festival likewise drove rival camps to a canal-side Biennale bust-up. Can director, Sally Cookson, convincingly adapt a mid 50s iconic art-house Italian location road-movie to the stage? It’s a curate’s egg all right, a heady grappa glass half full/half empty.

The film’s an omnipresent circus elephant in the big-top tonight. And though it comes out smelling of roses there’s an ambiguous disconnect between this production’s mightily ambitious and vibrant adaptation and its original muse. How could it be otherwise? Not a lot really happens however much embellished with seductive symbolic, shadowed slow-motion mimes, brooding sound designs and multi-purpose telegraph-poles, the latter, admittedly, positing a teasing Calvary motif that resonates poignantly at journey’s end.

Audrey Brisson’s Gelsomina eschews the Fellini hair-bleached, boy-crop look for a more ersatz mousey, shoulder-hunched Dickensian gutter-waif. The iconic Breton shirt, Chaplinesque bowler hat and greasepaint seem to be an unrealised ambiguous tease – at least as far as the programme cover promises.

Northern grit, no-nonsense chain-busting bastard-on-a-bike on a mission to nowhere, Stuart Goodwin, as Zampanò, holds his own with menacing relish – and anyone else by the throat who says different.

It’s a pot-holed, cul de sac journey to the heart of what matters most – if anything, Gelsomina learns from the acrobatic Zampanò baiting Il Matto/Fool, a deliriously dextrous Bart Soroczynski, that everything has a purpose. For Gelsomina, hers is but to listen to the plaintive refrain in the seashell she brought from her coastal hovel, ever hoping to send money home to her mother. Zampanò’s drunken whoring says different, the mother who sold her for 10,000 Lira likewise, with her dead sister Rosa whom Zampanò also ‘adopted’.

This ring-side seat at the circus of broken dreams pitter-patters at the heart with resonant tears of a clown. The set-piece Act 2 openingCabaret/For The Benefit Of Mr. Kitehomage is a delight in itself and the slapstick buffoonery provides momentary diversion. Issues arise with the denouement arriving with bemusing rapidity. An operatic, crescendo begging the question – what if only Gelsomina could have read her own future in the wind? Or, more prosaically, what is going on? The production, sound-design and balletic mime in constant flux are a joy to behold. The beauty and craft of its form triumphs over the ephemera of its narrative substance. Highlight?‘There’s a man on the roof of the piazza and they say he is going to fly!’ The dissolute post-trapeze, piazza booze-up hangover sing-alongToo Much had even Tom Waits screaming for the paracetamol.

Runs until 13 May 2017 | Image: Robert Day

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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