Wednesday 26th April, 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse
There is a brilliant energy running through this enchanting production with its enveloping rowdy scenes of bars and busy streets. But the surreal energy of this piece also pervades the darker aspects and although she lives life under a perpetual dark cloud, our protagonist is a delight to watch. Having never seen the Oscar winning original of this story by the renowned Frederico Fellini, I am more than happy to have experienced Gelsomina’s story under the spell of Sally Cookson, whose direction is superbly stylised, slick and generous in showcasing masterful physicality.
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 is never a walking label. She is, in many ways, a victim. Yet she’s 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 an absolutely magnetic performer with her superb physicality and brilliant comic timing. Brisson’s vocal delivery also impresses, forcing us to take her to heart through a rather angelic singing voice.
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. Their timing and physicality are incredibly slick and under the guidance of Movement Director Cameron Carver, they give this production a flair and a sense of immaculate precision.
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 ditties, so I struggle to see this primarily as a musical.
La Strada is a very impressive show featuring some gorgeous and stylish stagecraft and it’s absolutely worth seeing.