The tone, curiously equable, often lapses into very Anglo-Saxon understatement and, although the performance has some nice touches in the later acts, the casting of the dry, intellectual Michael Pennington as Domenico, high- living amateur of women and racehorses, starts off by seeming a mismatch on a par with recruiting, say, Manuel the waiter as the Warden of All Souls.
The evening has its compensations, most notably Judi Dench in the title role. Filumena is an ex-prostitute who, for 25 years, has slaved as the uncomplaining and under-appreciated mistress/housekeeper of Domenico, the wealthy man who rescued her from the brothel. Unbeknown to him or them, she has three adult sons whose legitimacy she has tried to secure, just before the play opens, by feigning a mortal illness to trick Domenico into a death-bed wedding. The ruse having back-fired, she lets it drop that one of the sons is his.
The crucial change of heart in the play has to come from Domenico who must consent, despite a painful natural curiosity, to remain in ignorance of the identity of his own son so that there will be no inequality in this newly created family.
Sporting a greying black wig, Dench beautifully communicates the fierce pride and, when roused, the tiger-like spirit of this illiterate, yet naturally intelligent woman. She radiates magnificent scorn for what she describes, in Timberlake Wertenbaker's eloquent translation, as the "world that protects itself with pen and paper", giving men legalistic loopholes for offending against the deepest laws of sentiment. And she poignantly lets you see a woman whose life has been a hard secret battle to give her offspring what her own dreadful background failed to provide for her.
But despite the layered humanity of Dench's performance, the evening does not live up to expectations. Part of the problem is the play, which moves to its optimistic conclusion a bit too neatly. True, it is a good joke that Filumena's three sons are genetically diverse and, at the start, socially incompatible. It is amusing, too, that after the second wedding they should all end up cheerily calling Domenico "Dad", to his embarrassed delight. Strange, though, that none of the boys is interested to know who his real father is. A simplification in a warm but only half- convincing comedy.
`Filumena' is at the Piccadilly Theatre in rep (0171-369 1734).