The Syndicate, Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Friday 05 August 2011
The title makes it sound like a sharp-suited business bonanza, possibly a Mafiosi Mad Men. In fact, this is a 1960 Neapolitan comedy of familial resentment and redemption with a great pairing of Sir Ian McKellen as a godfather with a guilty secret and Michael Pennington as his doctor.
It is like Alan Ayckbourn with layers of political corruption and strips of lasagne, and it is written by the great Eduardo De Filippo, whose work is best known here for performances by Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Ralph Richardson and Judi Dench in National Theatre productions of Saturday Sunday Monday, Filumena and Inner Voices.
McKellen, soon to follow the trail of The Hobbit in New Zealand, led an NT version of De Filippo's Napoli Milionaria, as a devious panhandler. Here, he's Don Antonio Barracano, a seigniorial, moustachioed mobster who dispenses rough justice as a smooth adjudicator.
He enters in a silk robe, self-confessedly 75 years old, jogging and shadow boxing as if to prove his mettle. The son of an old friend has been shot, though not fatally, his own wife has been bitten by a dog (ditto), and there's a dispute over debts. Oh, and the hot-headed Rafiluccio (striking newcomer Gavin Fowler) wants to kill his own father.
The big problem, which Sean Mathias's well-cast production doesn't fully overcome, is that we must somehow experience the rich, pulsating texture of these lives and this place in a rhythm that feels natural and convincing, all over the course of one day.
Mike Poulton's "version" (who did the translation, then?) and Angela Davies's design are not very Neapolitan, though there is a rather wonderful long, slow opening scene of the house waking up to dogs barking and Pennington's dressing-gowned medic extracting a bullet with tweezers from a bloody wound.
It's lovely to see Cherie Lunghi as the don's wife, even though she is far more Norwich than Naples. A linen-suited Oliver Cotton plays with a straight bat as the Don's oldest adversary, and Annie Hemingway is a superbly fiery fiancée whose liking for pastries led to a bun in the oven.
The play's original title, Il Sindaco del Rione, translates literally as "The Mayor of Health Alley"; McKellen's ebullient performance is just what the doctor ordered.
To 20 August (01243 781312); then touring
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