REVIEW: La Strada, The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

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‘Magic and wonder lights up the dark’

Reviewed on 14th February

BASED on legendary Italian director Federico Fellini’s 1957 Oscar-winning film, La Strada, this production is a remarkably ambitious undertaking.

The film does not seem an obvious choice for a theatrical treatment. It tells the tragic tale of wide-eyed Gelsomina who is sold by her impoverished mother to brutish strongman Zampano, a travelling sideshow performer. Their journey through the Italian countryside leads them to a rag-tag touring circus where they meet Il Matto, the free-spirited tightrope walker, who tries to rekindle Gelsomina’s broken spirit. There’s something very magical about the film — it is in turns bleak and uplifting, dreamlike and magnificent.

Fellini had a nervous breakdown making it; and when the great Lionel Bart wrote a musical version for the stage which opened on Broadway in 1969, it ignominiously closed after one night, and was rubbished by one critic as “the most depressing musical ever”. So who in their right minds would dare give a musical adaptation a bash?

Multi-Olivier Award-winning producer Kenny Wax that’s who. He told Herald arts recently: “I have been trying to mount a stage production of La Strada for many years. When [director] Sally Cookson told me it was her favourite film, the stars seemed to align more perfectly than I could have ever dreamed.”

And so did Kenny and Sally achieve the impossible dream of a laudable staged La Strada? Well sort of.

There is much to relish about the production. Like a Fellini film, it is beautifully shot, a visual treat.

The stark stage is up-lit, which casts long shadows from the actors and props against the back wall — the silhouettes and eerie lighting giving a beguiling old-world circus ambience to the proceedings.

The 20-strong ensemble play music — a good few of them are dedicated musicians — which punctuates the action with a delightfully Gypsy jazz-infused sounds.

The cast are brilliantly choreographed and sway as one to represent the sea, twizzle tyres aloft to mimic Zampano’s speeding motorbike, and cause wine bottles to hover and pour as if replicating the hubbub of a busy bar. All is done with magic and wonder.

The three main players — Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina, Stuart Goodwin as Zampano and Bart Soroczynski as Il Matto — bring real talent and energy to their performances.

And yet, despite the mainly praiseworthy aspects of this production, and its elegant climax, it lacks the killer emotional punch of Fellini’s exalted epic.

It palls in parts — time passes slowly as you wonder where the dramatic tension went — and fails to fully pick up the symbolism and themes explored so poignantly in the film.