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La Strada – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Original Script: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli

Director: Sally Cookson

Writer in the Room: Mike Akers

Music: Benji Bower

Designer: Katie Sykes

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

La Strada was devised by the company, a largish ensemble with as many dancers and musicians as actors, under the direction of Sally Cookson and with Mike Akers on hand as ‘writer in the room’. The narrative sticks fairly closely to the outline of Federico Fellini’s film, but the tone and style belong to a different age and a different creative process: it’s a production that oddly manages to be very different from, yet essentially true to, the original.

The focus of the story is on only three characters, so much so that seven of the ten members of the acting/dancing ensemble are not even given a named part. Zampano performs as a strongman, travelling in his improvised motorcycle van through the villages of poverty-stricken post-war Italy. Gelsomina is the naive teenager whom he buys from her mother to act as his assistant and then beats, insults and ignores as much as he teaches her how to act as a performer. Il Matto (the Fool) is an acrobat and clown who despises Zampano who, in turn, hates him. On the road, la strada, Zampano and Il Matto meet, work together in a travelling circus, lose their jobs through their fighting, and finally meet up again, with tragic consequences. 

Relationships and emotions are ambiguous. Gelsomina delights in the wit, fun and expertise of Il Matto, but does she really want to go off with him instead of Zampano? Zampano’s actions towards Gelsomina suggest he cares nothing for her; is this true? The only certainty is the deep-rooted, unexplained feud between Zampano and Il Matto.

Fellini’s film is a masterpiece of Italian neo-realism in the cinema, a bleak black-and-white world of battered buildings, raw emotions and monotonous lives relieved by a little clowning or the odd feat of strength. Cookson’s show is full of colour and movement, the ensemble swaying together as a unit to represent the crowds or the sea, Benji Bower’s music underpinning the whole performance, from songs to highly evocative writing for (mostly) strings and accordion.

The whole thing is too expansive to be bleak, but Katie Sykes’ set is true both to the original and to Cookson’s concept: the old wooden telegraph poles have the drabness of Fellini’s road, but are also used with great ingenuity in helping to create the varied groupings and the opportunities for acrobatics that characterise the production.

Words are not the strength of this production. Some necessary exposition is flatly written and delivered. With a few exceptions, the characterisation of supporting parts is not especially convincing: why the occasional use of terribly formal English accents alongside Italian?

However, the three principal performances combine with the flair and imagination of the production to make this a memorable analogue to Fellini’s film. Stuart Goodwin’s brute of a Zampano and Bart Soroczynki’s feckless Matto, highly impressive as a unicycling accordionist and getting all the funniest lines, are both excellent, but Audrey Brisson is exceptional as Gelsomina. How to follow the wonderful Giulietta Masina’s unforgettable creation of the character? Miraculously Brisson manages it: her waif-like Gelsomina, always poised on the brink of surprise, registering emotion with an innocent clarity, joying in brief moments of pride and pleasure, is constantly watchable, every movement an expression of character, the pathos and comedy equally unforced.

Touring nationwide | Image: Robert Day

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. 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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