“Wherever I come from, it’s where you come from too”
Eduardo De Filippo’s 1946 play Filumena starts off with the title character on her deathbed, finally having married the man with whom she has lived for the last 27 years. But all is not as it seems: he’s a wealthy businessman but she’s been his mistress, a former prostitute who has inveigled him into nuptial promises after seeing his attention waver elsewhere. And upon the deal being sealed, she makes a miraculous recovery and reveals that she has three sons who need taking care of. As truths spill out from all sides, we see the sacrifices that women are willing to make for their children and the ingenuity they need to play men at their own game.
Michael Attenborough takes on the directorial duties here at the Almeida in this new colloquial version by Tanya Ronder which sits a little at odds with the 1940s Naples setting but it is structurally where the play really feels somewhat curious. The first act plays out well, setting up the story and building up the necessary drama, but then we return after the interval to a very short second act which has jumped 10 months into the future and feels rather disconnected from what has gone before. The tone of the play shifts away from the darkness suggested by the social realism into an easy comic mood which does a disservice to the people working so hard to unearth an emotional depth here.
Chief amongst these is Samantha Spiro (an actress whom I adore in musicals but have yet to experience quite the same thrill from her in a straight play) who struggles a little to make Filumena more than just a calculating schemer, until the play changes around her to allow to play to her strengths at generating huge emotional warmth. Clive Wood likewise does as well as he can with Domenico whose certainties are seriously challenged by the machinations of his mistress, but this portrayal of Italian masculinity is strangely neutered, lacking any sense of believable anger or threat. Sheila Reid’s Rosalia has some amusingly spiky contributions but along with the trio of men playing Filumena’s brood, is given little opportunity to rise above the sort of contributions more at home in a shaky BBC sitcom – not funny enough to really make us laugh, not tragic enough to really make us feel.
Robert Jones’ set is undeniably atmospheric, the courtyard warmly bathed in Neopolitan sunshine hues by Tim Mitchell and its orange tree reaching up to the ceiling, but the problem for me lies in Michael Attenborough’s direction which simply lacks teeth. His research trip to Naples which is interestingly detailed in the programme demonstrates his understanding of the socio-cultural world in which De Filippo was writing but something has definitely been lost in the journey back to North London.