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A CurtainUp London Review
by Tim Macavoy
Filumena (Samantha Spiro) is in her mid forties, lying on her deathbed and waiting to marry the man who has kept her as a mistress for 25 years. But no sooner has the priest performed his duties than Filumena makes a miraculous recovery - and that’s not the only surprise she has in store for her new hubby Domenico (Clive Wood). Three sons are about to make an appearance, and Filumena will use all her cunning to make sure they are provided for.
Filumena is a battle of wits between on/off lovers, that is recognisable as a classic comedy. And yet the threat that these people might actually kill each other looms as real as anything else they say. Filumena has come from poverty and prostitution, and knows what life is like outside the house she has held on to for so long. The stakes are much higher than whimsical will-they? won’t-they? This is De Filippo’s observance at work; Naples, then and now, has a clear divide between the affluent Toledo and the Spanish Quarter, home to criminals, prostitutes and those that are just unlucky.
Director Michael Attenborough visited the city for research, and his understanding of this hidden hillside where Filumena would have worked as a teenager really shows itself in the nuanced performances. The jokes are as light as the sunny courtyard set, but the threats are intense enough to make you hold your breath. There are few comedy dramas that can do that without having to play it ‘dark’. The story unfolds with such good timing and surprise, that I am loath to speak much of it for fear of spoiling the fun. Anywhere an extra detail could have been placed, Attenborough has found it.
As for Samantha Spiro, who plays the eponymous character, this is not the first or even second time in the past year that I have been wowed by her. She uses the comedic skills on show in Grandma’s House and the maternal passion from Chicken Soup with Barley previously reviewed in CurtainUp go here. Her charisma draws you in, and yet she listens so intently when other actors are having their say, that you never feel she is diverting attention - which is generous indeed. The performance hinges largely on the delivery of Filumena’s back story. The temptation would be to play the harrowing experience of being driven into prostitution and starvation at 14, but she is a woman who has come to terms with her lot, and has decided to fight for more for her sons - and so we are told in a matter of fact way that can only make you feel this situation was not unique to her.
Finally, a word on the translation: Tanya Ronder has done wonders. The language is contemporary English and yet maintains a vivacity and syntax that is distinctly Italian. It’s work like this that means an actor doesn’t have to put on an accent and make everyone feel uncomfortable. We know exactly where and when we are, without having to refer to programme notes. Someone is even slandered as a ‘bint’ which I am personally going to try and revive immediately.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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