Wednesday 26th April, 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse
There is a brilliant energy running through this production; the enveloping rowdy scenes of bars and cleverly represented busy streets are joyous to watch purely for the brilliance of the physicality, which is absolutely a winning aspect of this wonderful production. But the surreal energy of this piece pervades the darker aspects, too – and our protagonist is a delight to watch, though she lives life under a perpetual dark cloud. I will confess that I have not yet seen the Oscar winning original of this story by the renowned Frederico Fellini. I do intend to seek it out and educate myself, but for now, I am more than happy to have experienced Gelsomina’s story under the spell of Sally Cookson, whose direction is superb; stylised, slick and generous in showcasing masterful physicality. It’s a surreal world rather than an attempt to reproduce a real world, and that really works in favour of the story.
La Strada is a story rich with the recognised features of a classic. It makes important social history visible through engaging characters; spotlighting the consequences of poverty and hardship through the villainous character Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin), while also demonstrating that the conseqences are not always set in stone. Though Gelsomina suffers from poverty and a truly tragic back story, she clearly has a conscience and a genuine sense of right and wrong, while Zampanò appears to have none, despite one or two flickers of sentiment. It’s also very easy to invest in Gelsomina and her quirky, awkward charm – after all, who can resist the tug of an endearing, sweet protagonist living under a heavy burden before they eventually take charge of their own emancipation from oppression? Yes, there’s tragedy, but La Strada is also very sweet, sparky and funny – it certainly gives the impression of having more layers than a Windsor wedding cake.
Under Audrey Brisson’s brilliant portrayal, Gelsomina, our protagonist, is never a walking label. She is, in many ways, a victim. Yet she is never a jittering shell, cracked and unfixable; there’s always a spark or some small indication of her maintaining or regaining control, if only of herself. She is clearly uneducated, yet no fool. Her innocence is childish, at times poignant, and often very funny, namely because Brisson is absolutely enchanting to watch – she is an impressively multi-talented gift to this production. Her physicality is superb. Her comic timing is brilliant. Watching her is fascinating, and considering the fact that she barely leaves the stage and holds our attention fast for the duration, it’s one of the strongest performances that I’ve seen so far this year. Her movement is anything between resembling an ironing board in comic rigidity or an odd bonelessness, making glorious use of the illusion of fluidity. Her vocal delivery forces you to take her to heart and she soon reveals an angelic singing voice, making this a beautiful piece of theatre in many respects.
Stuart Goodwin’s Zampanò is detestable and is bruisingly presented as a swaggering, perpetually self- serving egotist. Although there’s no clear romance between Gelsomina and Il Matto the fool, there is a heart-warming relationship between the two which is entirely the unrelenting work of the encorrigable, exuberant Il Matto, the fun-loving clown who fears no one and seeks to free Gelsomina. Bart Soroczynski’s playful characterisation and circus talents are a treat to see. This show is also a brilliant example of the impact a stellar ensemble can have. They act as chorus, minor roles, musical accompaniment and recurrently, as physical representations of Gelsomina’s inner turmoil or reflections of her situation (or so I interpreted). Their timing and physicality are as slick as a brand spanking new Rolls Royce and under the guidance of Movement Director Cameron Carver, they give this production a flair and a sense of immaculately rehearsed quality.
Not quite beautiful but beautifully utilised was Katie Sykes’ simplistic set, which is likely a reflection of the poverty of the time (it is set in post-war Italy, in a state of deprivation) but it allowed the cast to demonstrate the strong foundations of their make-believe skills, with plenty of mime and abstract representation of places and objects. Sykes’ costume designs perfectly capture the deprivation of the time, with simple period clothes and heavily mended, ragged clothing for poor Gelsomina. Sykes also cannily emphasises Gelsomina’s small size with over-sized clothing which only serves to magnify her general awkwardness and to tug at the heart strings with her visual vulnerability. Music is provided by a small, snappy band (Luke Potter, T J Holmes and Tim Dalling), with vocals from both the band and the talented ensemble, yet there are no big ballads for the tortured protagonist and the songs are more like momentary segue way ditties, so I struggle to see this primarily as a musical. I’d be more inclined to say that it is a fascinating hybrid, with drama as the heart and soul.
La Strada is so very nearly a five star show. I was incredibly impressed with it but it has to be said that the final scenes do feel abrupt and although the physicality was one of my favourite things about this production, some of the choices seemed more throw-away and decorative than functional. Although the abrupt shifts towards the end may well have been the intention for dramatic impact, I did feel that an opportunity to develop the final scenes was missed – I’m not saying that all tales featuring tragedy should attack the tear ducts, but I do think it could have had more impact. However, with that said, I think that the very final scene is beautiful, both visually and vocally – what a hauntingly pure voice, and what a finish! The difficulty for me now is the frustrating urge to categorise this production, which defies neat handling because it is so glaringly a well constructed hybrid. It has brilliant, lively, perfectly atmospheric music but I wouldn’t easily label it a musical. It features clowns and clowning and it made me laugh but it is not purely a comedy. There is too much comedy and drama to be a heavy tragedy and there is too much light relief to name it a thoroughbred drama. It may well be difficult to put in a box, but I’ll tell you what it is in simple terms: it is, in actual fact, something absolutely worth seeing.