Composer: Ron Siemiginowski
Librettist: Giles Watson
Director: Luke Fredericks
Setting a story in the Second World War can be shorthand for epic and, often, romantic themes, the period alone meant to capture big emotional shifts in a climate of life and death. Ron Siemiginowski and Giles Watson’s new show Mimma: A Musical of War and Friendship puts it all right there in the title and this Australian production receives a UK premier concert at Cadogan Hall in support of the Prince’s Trust, a better showcase for its score, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, than its episodic story.
With Turin overrun by Il Duce’s black shirts, Mimma is sent to Soho to the club of her Uncle Lorenzo where she meets and befriends club singer Sarah. But soon the Blitz brings war to British soil and with Sarah’s sailor boyfriend caught up in the retreat from Dunkirk, the stakes feel impossibly high when Mimma’s Italian nationality turns her into a target.
Mimma is a hugely ambitious show, telling the story of the war simultaneously in London and Turin at different points in the conflict, following Mimma and the family she left behind. It also hops to internment camps in the north of England, briefly to New York and around Europe while covering the years 1938-1952. There is enough plot here for probably three musicals so while Siemiginowski and Watson’s piece wants to emphasise the persecution of ordinary Italian citizens, anti-fascists and Jews in Italy and Britain, much of its political fire only ever skims the surface, prioritising plot leaps over depth and sometimes even meaning.
Characterisation also suffers as a result and the audience doesn’t spend enough time with anyone to properly invest in their lives, even the eponymous Mimma. Instead, singular traits become a substitute for personalities; Sarah is the lovely friend, Lorenzo the bar owner and the Turin-based characters – brother Aldo and mother Ada Marini – are innocent bystanders. And the musical never gets much beyond that, making it difficult to establish relationships particularly between Sarah and Mimma who have one brief conversation about boyfriends and are instantly best mates.
Consequently, much of the storytelling relies on a narrator and here, in a coup, David Suchet frames the action and sometimes provides the extra context the show lacks. Yet, scenes still feel somehow disconnected from the reality of life in 30’s Britain, as though xenophobia, Antisemitism and Oswald Mosley didn’t exist. Making the narrator a family member of Mimma’s, Suchet takes the audience between locations and time periods which gives some structure, but allowing Mimma to tell her own story could make it sharper still.
Musically, though, Mimma is charming, a combination of operatic music (some sung in Italian) given to the Turin characters and a lighter swing score for Soho which mark a geographical as well as a musical difference on stage. Often soaring, romantic and grand, especially when played by the BBC orchestra conducted by Richard Balcombe, it certainly captures the sweeping epic that Siemiginowski and Watson are looking for as well as the darker tones of conflict and its civilian consequences.
With an international cast including Celinde Schoenmaker as Mimma, Louise Dearman as Sarah and an almost show-stealing turn from Steve Serlin as Jacob Katz – what a comic character he could be if given more stage time and purpose – there is a huge amount of talent on display, not least Elena Xanthoudakis as Mimma’s mother and Ashley Riches’ Aldo whose operatic performances are ovation worthy. Yet, Mimma needs a bit of focus and more time to properly develop the friendship that even war could not sunder.
Reviewed on 28 February 2022