The Syndicate, Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Henry IV Parts I and 2, Theatre Royal, Bath
Double Feature, Paint Frame Space, NT London

Hankering for just one more Mafia drama? For sure, you might think the movies and the small screen have done this genre to death – lock, stock and two-a-penny. Yet The Syndicate is an intriguing curiosity, written in 1960 by the continentally revered Eduardo de Filippo (of Napoli Milionaria! renown). Hitherto unstaged in the UK, it’s premiering at Chichester in a new version by Mike Poulton. Sean Mathias’s chamber production, moreover, stars Ian McKellen on top form as Don Antonio Barracano, a Neapolitan godfather with a twist.

Holding sway over local gun-toting gangsters and shopkeepers, he’s a septuagenarian honcho with a country estate outside Naples – a villa combining shabby grandeur with nouveau-riche touches (fine set design

by Angela Davies). McKellen makes his first entrance comically, air-boxing before breakfast, wheezily puffing and bobbing around in sock-suspenders and a purple-satin dressing gown with his name stitched on the back. Think Henry Cooper, but shrunken, saggy and a bit loose at the seams.

Later, in a more seriously troubled vein – and now dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit – McKellen recalls the revenge killing he executed as a young man. He managed to evade the law and, since then, has made a packet as a property developer, dishing out bank notes in brown envelopes to override such petty irritations as planning permission.

When his long-term sidekick, Michael Pennington’s frazzled Dr Fabio della Ragione, announces that he can’t hack Naples’ underworld of hushed-up shootings any longer, McKellen ripostes with quietly masked menace, saying he’ll arrange for some “friends” to meet Fabio on arrival, if he’s really determined to emigrate to America. In other words, the Don will see you’re pumped full of lead if you irk him.

Or will he? As we see him receiving a string of callers, it becomes apparent that he can be more like a fairy godfather, handing a massive cheque to an impoverished youth (Gavin Fowler) disinherited by his bourgeois father (Oliver Cotton). Essentially, Barracano is a self-appointed judge, listening to disputes and aiming to stop feuds in their tracks, having learnt from his own experiences.

The Syndicate is not a well-made play or stylistically uniform. You may wonder where it’s going narratively, with several subplots lacking developmental momentum. But the meandering can be quirkily refreshing too: not your typical, structurally engineered storylining. The dialogue includes several digressions that sound extraordinarily like slices of verbatim, real-life chat. Mathias goes for some beautifully understated naturalism as well, particularly in the opening scene where dogs bark outside as dawn breaks and the household stumbles out of bed, tousled and yawning. Shaking out a white tablecloth, as if this is all routine, they are, in fact, setting up a makeshift operating theatre.

There’s been a turf-war skirmish, and Pennington – shrugging a white coat on over his pyjamas – has to save a life. This is nearer Chekhov than the clichés of a Caporegime, though it's grisly too as the doctor yanks a bullet out of someone's thigh.

Pennington and McKellen are a splendidly lived-in, veteran duo (both actors having become far less stagey). They slide deftly between the entertaining and the alarming, and McKellen's clown-like face can harden in an instant, his hooded eyes suddenly sinister slits. There's also top calibre support from Jane Bertish, as the bustling housekeeper.

The trouble is, Mathias hasn't coaxed great performances out of his younger cast members. As a result, Poulton's translation can sound wooden, not helped by bland RP accents that seem sociologically improbable and contrary to De Filippo's celebrated love of dialect.

The last act takes a heavily stylised turn, with a slow-spinning table and ghostly, pale lighting for a farewell supper. Twists suddenly come thick and fast, almost bewilderingly so, the moral U-turns sharp. Barracano's rift-smoothing tricks end up threatened by a new purgatorial policy of bitter truths and dog-eat-dog, unleashed vendettas.

The generational breach between the king of England and Prince Hal, his supposedly ne'er-do-well son, is healed in Shakespeare's epic two-parter, Henry IV. Indeed, Peter Hall's admirable double whammy – in rep at Bath – peaks with the deathbed scene where David Yelland's testy but also poignantly agonised Henry IV finds peace at last, reconciled with Tom Mison's weeping Hal.

Mison's relationship with his alternative father-figure is, meanwhile, unsettlingly multilayered as he hangs out in the underworld taverns of Eastcheap with Desmond Barrit's big-bellied, shamelessly dissolute Falstaff. There is a deep mutual fondness there, even a glimpse of cuddly tenderness, but then ominous flashes of bruising coldness when Hal play-acts – only half in jest – the regal scorn with which he plans to reject the old sot. Mison is strikingly torn, suppressing regret even as he turns icy.

Barrit isn't the most bouncily funny Fat Knight you'll ever see, and there are weak ensemble links, including a Hotspur whose rebellious tantrums lack comic timing, and lamely choreographed civil wars. However, all in all, incisive and absorbing – played out on in a shadowy brick chamber under silver shafts of light.

Lastly, the NT has opened up its backstage Paint Room (normally reserved for set construction) as a temporary performance space for Double Feature – four new plays by rising talents, with two presented per night, in rep. This isn't a thrillingly atmospheric "found space", basically being a vast concrete bunker with rough-and-ready tiers of benches for the audience. That said, it's enjoyable, enlivened by a pre-show live band and a bar amid the paint pots. The productions, directed by Lyndsey Turner and Polly Findlay, are polished.

The paired premieres that I caught were Edgar & Annabel by Sam Holcroft and The Swan by DC Moore. The first is an over-schematic, seriocomic thriller set in an anonymous fitted kitchen in a sea of darkness. We are snooping on some young revolutionaries in what appears to be a contemporary police state. They're pretending to be a bland couple in a possibly bugged house, so they read out scripted, super-banal conversations while making Molotov cocktails. In spite of droll and intense acting from Trystan Gravelle and Kirsty Bushell, though, Edgar and Annabel would fool no one. Dull-witted nonsense.

By comparison, Moore has a brilliant ear for how people really talk. We could probably do without another run-down pub play, but the tensions brewing at a post-funeral gathering in The Swan, even if slightly soapy, are also vibrantly humorous and sensitive. Trevor Cooper plays a mouthy geezer with gusto and the extraordinarily assured young actress Pippa Bennett-Warner is a bereaved adolescent.



'The Syndicate' (01243 781312) to 20 Aug, and touring; 'Henry IV, Parts 1 and II' (01225 448844) to 13 Aug; 'Double Feature' (020-7452 3000) to 10 Sep



Next week

Kate Bassett sees Anna Christie, starring Ruth Wilson and Jude Law.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on