La Strada – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and Touring

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina and Stuart Goodwin as Zampano in La Strada

Audrey Brisson and Stuart Goodwin in La Strada at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and Touring. Picture: Robert Day

La Strada continues at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 18 February before embarking on a national tour (the show receives its London premiere in July as part of the newly announced season at The Other Palace).

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Possibly it would be apt treat La Strada, based on one of Federico Fellini’s most endearing films, as a play with music, rather than a full-scale musical.

There are two or three very attractive songs; the bulk of the music coming from an onstage band, led by some attractive accordion and guitar/ukelele playing, with violin, double bass, and (unusually) two cellos.

The music – a new score from Benji Bower – comes across as a kind of jumbled medley. An Italian musical theme surfaces periodically like a kind of leitmotif, while other genres (partly apt, part a little bland) sustain the story like a kind of gentle, empathetic commentary. It’s pretty and teasing, but only occasionally distinctive.

Fellini’s Oscar-winning La Strada (1954) recounts the antics of a touring side-show masterminded by flamboyant, moody entertainer Zampanò. The latter takes a bright-eyed, long-suffering young girl called Gelsomina as his new assistant who obligingly does his bidding, tooting a trumpet and beating a side drum, despite his maltreatment of her and his gruff, bullying manner.

They set off on the road (La Strada) together, and the story is really a sequence of events and personalities they encounter on the highway.

The music is a kind of ongoing background to their tumbles and mishaps, but still proves a major asset, a key element in its own right.

The quality of playing – especially a beguiling solo cellist (Bower’s score genuinely delights) – sustains the action and carries the evening along.

The fact that the musicians are able actors too, cavorting around the stage and manoeuvring themselves into well-prepared, expressive groupings (mostly well-moved by director Sally Cookson) gives the show more of the feel of a musical, even though, with elegant movement but virtually no dance, it scarcely qualifies.

It’s Audrey Brisson’s Gelsomina, much put upon and occasionally fiery – she has the guts to stand up for herself – who carries the day.

Endlessly optimistic, she nonetheless battles her way through a wide range of moods, sometimes giving Zampanò as good as she gets.

Just watching her struggling to learn beating the drum, or puffing on the trumpet (she can really play), or swallowing a rare meal and licking the bowl, she is a treat to behold.

And when she bursts into her own song, we find she has a voice to die for. It’s a wonderful moment and makes all the rest worthwhile.

Stuart Goodwin makes a suitably brusque, bluff character of the jealous, possessive, chest-heaving Zampanò; while Canadian Bart Soroczynski, clownishly kitted out, gives a boost to the whole show playing The Fool (Il Matto), an ingenious, mesmerising unicyclist and tightrope-walker.

Other small vignettes from the company – including the girls and one very amusing Italian cleaner – keep the show moving. Aideen Malone’s lighting effects are good.

Not all of it was as lucid as I’d hoped; but keeping La Strada loyally close to Fellini’s original is greatly to the production’s credit.

Roderic Dunnett

Tickets for La Strada at The Other Palace are available HERE.

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