EDUARDO DE FILIPPO was Italy's most popular post-war playwright. His work brims with energy and humour, the colour and culture of urban Italy exuding from the rich, earthy Neapolitan dialect. Not that you'd guess this from Peter Hall's production of , which opens the autumn rep season at the Piccadilly. Timberlake Wertenbaker's new translation sensibly eschews Italianese or a British regional idiom. But the distinct sense of place has disappeared. The indigo walls of the drawing-room evoke a Mediterranean makeover on Changing Rooms; but the hot-blooded passions of the story aren't quite as easily brushed over.
, a former prostitute from the slums, has been Domenico's mistress for 25 years. A wife in all but name, she has just achieved what she rightfully deserved: marriage. But, as the pair burst upon the stage - Judi Dench with straggly hair spilling down the back of a white nightdress, Michael Pennington with Lothario moustache and dapper suit - all is not well. Domenico is raging.
Pennington painstakingly executes this with some rapid gesticulating, frantic pacing and forehead-slapping. Dench, motionless, fixes him with a steely stare. Naturally - particularly amid such Parma-hamming - the audience only has eyes for her. We will her to speak - this comes to be a recurrent wish - and it's a relief when at last she asks, "Have you finished?"
The problem? had feigned illness, played a good death-bed scene. Then, before the ink dried on the marriage certificate, she was out of bed, flushed with success. She reveals that she has been anonymously supporting three adult sons. They now have a family and a respectable name. "Ha, ha, ha," spits the vengeful Domenico, vowing to annul the union. But (thankfully) he's not laughing for long. One of the sons is his.
De Filippo's play quickly gets the melodrama out of the way, and bravely reverses the flow of dramatic energy towards an unexpectedly elegaic conclusion. The social-cipher sons (plumber, tailor, geeky clerk) provide some competent comedy. Domenico eventually achieves a measure of selflessness and grace.
But Hall's faltering farce doesn't serve the cast well. Neither, despite the best intentions, does Judi Dench. is the play's heart and conscience, and Dench delivers fiery speeches on love, law and responsibility with dignity and a mediated bitterness. The others are left flapping in her wake.
Piccadilly, WC2 (0171 369 1734), in rep to 3 January.Reuse content