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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn