How come I’d never heard of Fellini’s film La Strada? According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, it has become “one of the most influential films ever made”, according to the American Film Institute. It won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 and it was placed fourth in the 1992 British Film Institute directors’ list of cinema’s top 10 films. And I’ve never heard of it.
I’m wondering if I’m not alone in this ignorance, because I understand this touring production has been blighted by very poor audiences wherever it goes, and for last Saturday’s matinee at the vast Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, we were two among – I would guess – about 60 people? At least it meant no queue at the bar. I’m also guessing that the majority of that 60 were definitely fans of the film as they had no hesitation in giving it a standing ovation come curtain call time, so the production is definitely doing something right.
But I confess, I had no real interest in seeing it beyond mild curiosity, apart from the fact that I wanted to go to Sheffield to see Julius Caesar (of which, more soon) and I always like to pack two shows into a Sheffield Saturday if possible. I had, however, seen that it had received some good reviews; so, we defaulted into seeing La Strada.
It’s a simple story. A gullible girl is sold by her impoverished mother to a circus strongman named Zampano for 10,000 lire, and she goes on the road with him as his personal assitant, ostensibly to help him with his act. But he is a bully, is well known for getting into scrapes wherever he goes, and frequently will inflict corporal punishment on the girl for not obeying or supporting him. Along the way they meet another street entertainer/circus type Il Matto (the Fool). He’s kind to the girl, but obviously has some unfinished history with Zampano, and he does whatever he can to ridicule or discredit the old beast. Can the three of them all get along together, or will one of them crack under the pressure?
It’s a smart looking production, with a busy set and effective costumes by Katie Sykes; it also sounds great, with the musical instruments being played by the majority of the on-stage performers; and there are even some circus tricks to appreciate. Whilst cradling our interval Sauvignon Blancs, Bart Soroczynski (playing Il Matto) nipped into the bar with his accordion and had a chat to everyone, which was a nice touch. Mr Soroczynski cuts a very good fool; one of those very sorrowful looking clowns for whom life never seems to have much going for it – nevertheless they struggle on. He blends very well into the stylised background for this show – which is an overwhelming air of sadness, of resignation, of expectation of doom. In the other major roles, Stuart Goodwin certainly looks the part as the bully strongman Zampano, and Audrey Brisson is charmingly naïve as Gelsomina the girl, and she plays a mean trumpet.
But right from the start it all felt very introverted, almost as though one were stumbling upon someone else’s private grief, and you were just an intruding onlooker and not a participant. One of the problems with the show that we found was that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I cared two hoots about what would happen to the protagonists. And I think that’s at least in part because, for whatever reason, we did not get under the characters’ skins. If Miss Brisson was meant to tear at our heartstrings with her vulnerability and purity, it didn’t happen; if Mr Goodwin was meant to menace us with his swagger and intimidation, that didn’t happen either. And I certainly didn’t believe any sense of regret from Mr Goodwin at the end, despite his wailings.
In short, it was all just a bit bland; generally well performed but not exactly interesting. The second half is massively more entertaining than the first, so if you make it to the interval, do stay till the end. The show left us totally unmoved and totally unrewarded; but I can imagine if you’re a fan of the film, it will be a whole lot more fascinating to you than it was to us. It’s now finished its UK tour but is playing at the new Other Palace Theatre in Victoria until 8th July.
P. S. The programme advises that the show’s running time is 2 hrs 15 minutes. However, our show came in at a much niftier 1 hr 50 minutes. I can only assume that they’ve excised a big chunk out of it during the course of the run; to which I say, very good call.
Production photos by Robert Day