La Strada theatre review: Fellini’s tragic film is brought to the stage with a haunting musical score ★★★

An impoverished mother is forced to sell her daughter in this melancholy tale based on the Oscar-winning post-war classic

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Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada has long been regarded as a masterpiece of post-war Italian cinema. Back in 1992 it placed fourth in the British Film Institute’s list of the top ten most influential films. So one has to tread carefully when bringing a version to the stage.

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While not strictly a musical, this production uses an ensemble of accomplished actor/musicians to add texture and a haunting soundtrack to the story that doesn’t deviate much from what Fellini put on screen.

Simple-minded young woman Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) is sold by her impoverished mother to Zampano (Stuart Godwin), a travelling showman who moves from village to village performing a strongman act. The deal is that Gelsomina will earn money as his assistant that can be sent home to help her family, replacing her older sister Rosa who mysteriously “didn’t make it through the winter”.

Zampano proves to be a brutish employer who beats Gelsomina when she doesn’t live up to his expectations. It’s a sad and achingly melancholy tale in which the naïve young girl is dragged around the country as an unwitting and unwilling accomplice in Zampano’s drunken and nefarious escapades.

Bart Soroczynski as The Fool (all photographs by Robert Day)

Directed by Sally Cookson, written by Mike Akers and devised by the whole company during an extensive rehearsal process, the production is beautifully crafted thanks to movement director Cameron Carver who makes inventive use of minimal props and some simple but effective choreography.

But while Brisson’s performance is pitch-perfect and avoids laying on too much pathos, we never really feel completely immersed in her plight. In the film Fellini had the scope to show the deprivation and poverty in rural Italy in the years after the war, but that background to the mother’s desperate deal is missing on stage.  

Some light relief comes when the pair join a rundown travelling circus and Gelsomina is befriended by The Fool (Bart Soroczynski), a musician and comedy high wire performer. But even here the girl can find little respite because The Fool’s antagonisation of Zampano means the threat of further tragedy continually looms in the background.

La Strada is at The Other Palace until 8 July


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Book tickets for La Strada at Radio Times Box Office