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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Filumena
Almeida Theatre    Spring 2012

Eduardo de Filippo's 1946 play is a warm comic fable of a surprising sort of love conquering all in surprising ways. For this new production adaptor Tanya Ronder and director Michael Attenborough have chosen to emphasise the harsh realities of the postwar Naples setting rather than the softer fable-like quality of the near-fairytale. 

The result is a play that sometimes seems at war with itself, with the softer comic vision eventually, but just barely, winning. 

Filumena is the ex-prostitute and twenty-five year live-in mistress of ageing playboy Domenico. At the play's opening she has just conned him into finally marrying her by pretending to be on her deathbed, but that is only the first of her manipulations. She announces that she has three grown sons Domenico knew nothing about, that she has been robbing him blind for years to support them, and, what's more, one of them is his son and she won't tell him which. 

You can see the opportunities for comedy, particularly in Domenico's head-spinning confusion, and also for sentiment as a mother's love and a couple's rediscovered feelings for each other move things toward a happy ending. 

I missed Judi Dench in 1998, but still remember Joan Plowright thirty-five years ago playing Filumena with the preternatural calm and confidence of one who had the whole future worked out clearly in her head and knew that no counter-offensive by Domenico could seriously inconvenience her. 

Here Samantha Spiro makes her much less sure and much more passionate in her determination to fight at long last for what she wants. Spiro's Filumena is angry through the entire first act, driven by the accumulated rage of the worm finally turning against her oppressor. 

This is dramatically effective, but it turns the play into more of a psychological and moral drama than a comedy – which I'm fairly confident is not de Filippo's intention, because the second act, which is all warm reconciliation and the light humour of Domenico trying to guess which is his son, now jars sharply with the first, to the point of almost seeming a different play.

If you accept a somewhat nasty-edged drama that abruptly becomes a warm and all-embracing comedy, this Filumena has a lot to enjoy in it. Spiro's angry avenger of Act One is a strong and convincing performance, Clive Wood has a lot of fun with the man far more used to thought-free comfort and pleasure than any kind of actual mental work, and there is warm support from Sheila Reid and Geoffrey Freshwater as the sort of old servants who are virtually family members. 

Tanya Ronder's translation anglicises things to a degree that sometimes grates on the ear – three Neapolitans reunited with the mother they never knew might learn to call her 'Mama', but surely not 'Mum' – and a key plot twist turns on something the sons say in unison, but on press night their timing and enunciation were off, weakening the moment.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Filumena - Almeida Theatre 2012

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