A Latin night in Torquay

First Night; Filumena Piccadilly Theatre London
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The Independent Online
THE DRAMATIC world of Eduardo de Filippo is steeped in the culture of Naples; but, despite the decor and the picture of the Sacred Heart, there are times in Peter Hall's production of Filumena when the feel of the show is about as Neapolitan as Torquay.

Remembering to gesticulate excitably every so often, the cast none the less seems to be going through some English sitcom - a sort of Fawlty Pensione.

The tone 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, the high-living amateur of women and racehorses, starts off by seeming a mis-hit on a par with casting, say, Manuel the waiter as the Warden of All Souls.

The evening has its compensations, most notably Judi Dench in the title role. Raised in the slums of Naples, Filumena is a former prostitute who for the past 25 years has slaved as the under-appreciated mistress and housekeeper of Domenico, the wealthy man who rescued her from the brothel. Unbeknownst to him or them, she has three adult sons whose legitimacy she has tried to secure, just before the play opens, by feigning illness to trick Domenico into a deathbed wedding.When the ruse backfires, she lets it be known that one of the sons is his. The change of heart in the play has to come from Domenico who must consent to remain in ignorance of the identity of his offspring so that there can be complete equality.

Dench beautifully communicates the fierce pride, dismissive gruff-voiced humour and tenacious spirit of this illiterate woman. Hand on hip in postures of scathing scorn, she is magnificently unimpressed by what she describes, in Timberlake Wertenbaker's eloquent translation, as the "world that protects itself with pen and paper" and allows men to wriggle out of their duties.

But, despite the layered humanity of Dench's performance, the evening does not live up to expectations - the play's optimism bought at the cost of a certain simplifying thinness.