La Strada, The Other Palace, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada (‘The Road’) chronicles the story of Gelsomina, a plaintive young girl who is sold by her poverty-stricken mother into servitude to the brutal strongman Zampanò.

Their journey across the Italian landscape, including formative encounters with more circus folk, are brought to the stage by director Sally Cookson in a production from Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.

After a short tour, Gelsomina and her circus colleagues have pitched tent at The Other Palace. Physically several miles away from the Barbican’s production of Obsession, another play based on Italian mid-20th century cinema, it is also in a completely different world in terms of interpreting film for the stage.

For where Ivo Van Hove’s stagings are all about cold, geometric brutalism, Cookson and her troupe have devised a production that supplements the film’s melancholic air with a blast of music and colour that invites in their audience.

Key to this production is Audrey Brisson as the diminutive Gelsomina. Wearing an air of hangdog charm in the traditions of many a great clown from Grimaldi to Chaplin, Brisson immediately charms as the young girl who is forced to learn to entertain at the end of a whip, reduced to a performing animal by Stuart Goodwin’s monstrous Zampanò.

As the pair travel from location to location, Zampanò’s displays of strength earning them money which the strongman immediately fritters away in bars, it is Brisson’s quiet charms which carry the production.

Less a musical than a play with music and the occasional song, composer Benji Bower tasks the actor-musician cast with playing a variety of pieces, from haunting seashore melodies to rambunctious tavern knees-ups. But they act as underscoring only, rarely registering in the memory the way great musical theatre does.

In contrast, the ensemble stand out, not least Bart Soroczynski’s Fool. His antagonistic history with Zampanò, and the affectionate relationship he strikes up with Gelsomina, places him at the oddest end of the weird triangle of lost souls.

Both Brisson and Soroczynski have extensive circus credits, and it shows in the way both traverse Katie Sykes’ bleached wood set, two telegraph poles doubling as the tentpoles of the circus big top.

But even despite an impressive routing combining unicycling and accordion playing from Soroczynski, the rest of circus life is reduced to allusion and mummery. The Fool’s debut tightrope walk, however hard Soroczynski sells it, loses something by being performed on the floor.

That said, the cast’s physicality does imbue the story with a sense of heart that, if not in the same league as Fellini’s original film, still stirs the emotions. But that is mostly down to Brisson, whose Gelsomina will remain in the memory long after other recollections of La Strada have faded.