Wednesday 28 March 2012

Theatre Review: Filumena (Almeida)

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Eduardo de Filippo’s 1946 play Filumena is a slight wee thing but fairly charming: a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that pits female resourcefulness against male vanity and pride. Its eponymous heroine is a former prostitute who pretends to be dying in order to persuade her long-time lover Domenico, a wealthy businessman, into marriage. The play opens after the revelation of Filumena’s successful deception, which sets the scene for yet more revelations from the character's past and an eye-opening day or two for Domenico, who finds his sense of power and privilege thoroughly tested.

Filumena was last seen in London in 1998, in a production starring Judi Dench and Michael Pennington (that apparently featured a classic Dench first night faux pas). Michael Attenborough’s new production at the Almeida gives off pleasing, sunny vibes. Unfolding on an attractive courtyard set by Robert Jones, and warmly lit by Tim Mitchell, the production begins strongly, with a punchy first Act, but then dampens down, dramatically, as it progresses. (An unnecessary interval doesn’t help.) There’s plenty of pain and complex feelings underpinning the premise, which touches on Filumena’s impoverished background, the sorrow of mother/child separation, and the deceptions made necessary for women under patriarchy. Such issues surface here at moments, cutting through the comedy, and Tanya Ronder’s translation strives for vulgar life. But the tone is mostly light and cosy, and by not going further the play ultimately seems trivial.

Still, the evening remains quite enjoyable, sparked by some spirited, entertaining performances. As Filumena, Samantha Spiro mixes toughness and tenderness to highly engaging effect: she starts out stridently - confronting Domenico with her grievances, we feel the weight of many years of repressed emotion - but softens into serenity (and beauty) in a graced final scene. Clive Wood partners her well as the vain, philandering Domenico, nicely conveying the character’s anger and surprise as his sense of security is undermined. And the venerable Sheila Reid - so brilliant, currently, as the monstrous Madge in my favourite TV guilty pleasure, Benidorm - is a wonderfully warm and watchful presence here as Filumena’s long-time maid and companion, with her own painful history that parallels her mistress’s.

There’s more bite (and better gags) in the average episode of Benidorm, it must be said, and Attenborough’s production certainly isn’t one to go to with huge expectations. But it makes for a pleasant diversion overall.

The production runs until 12th May. Further information at the Almeida website.

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