The last attempt to stage Fellini’s Oscar-winning 1954 movie had a score by Lionel Bart and closed after one night on Broadway. This version, devised by the company under Sally Cookson’s direction, is destined for a longer life because it tours widely before arriving at the Other Palace in London in May. It is charming, witty and inventive, while reminding one that there is loss, as well as gain, in turning movie classics into stage shows.
Mike Akers, billed as “writer in the room”, and the company follow closely the outlines of the Fellini film. The waif-like Gelsomina is sold by her mother to a travelling strongman, Zampano, who tours Italy with a chain-busting act. They make an improbable pair but, although beaten by her employer, Gelsomina can never quite escape. Even when they join a ragtag circus and Gelsomina is befriended by an acrobatic clown, she struggles to break the chains that tie her to Zampano.
It is fascinating to see how the story has been tweaked in line with modern sensibilities. Where Giulietta Masina in the movie achieved self-fulfilment by turning into a Chaplinesque clown, the stage Gelsomina becomes so skilled a trumpeter that she turns Zampano into her accomplice.
But what no stage version can ever capture is the graphic portrait by Fellini, who was a product of the neo-realist movement, of postwar Italy. In the movie we see the desolate bomb sites, the scarred towns, the seaside shacks; even the stray dogs, as one critic shrewdly observed, who echo the solitude of the principal characters.
Cookson’s strength, as we saw in her Peter Pan at the National Theatre, lies in creating fluid stage pictures. Her 13-strong ensemble double as actors and musicians, and make imaginative use of props and their own physical resources. Three tyres and a couple of wooden crates turn into Zampano’s motorcycle truck; a strip of candy-coloured canvas becomes a circus tent; clicking fingers evoke the night cries in a town square. Benji Bower’s music also enhances the story without interrupting it: it gives us a flavour of the low dives and high-wire acts the central couple encounter rather than halting the action with stand-alone songs.
But the chief pleasure lies in watching the excellent principals. Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina does not overdo the gamine perkiness, but artfully suggests that this ragged figure, looking like one of Beckett’s tramps, is alert, wide-eyed and quietly determined to earn enough money to support her family. Her performance makes it a story about a female slave’s self-liberation. Stuart Goodwin as Zampano is more visibly brutal than Anthony Quinn in the movie but also suggests that, for all his strongman showmanship, he is the one enchained. Bart Soroczynski as the attenuated Fool skirts easy pathos by brilliantly demonstrating his circus skills as an accordion-playing unicyclist. If I give the show a fourth star, it is largely because the lead performers effortlessly overcome one’s memories of the movie.