Kenny Wax is an eclectic producer, responsible for the spectacular award-winning Top Hat, Hollywood musical turned West End show; enchanting children’s shows, including Olivier- nominated Room on the Broom; and now Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada. All are musical adaptations, reimagined with originality and sensitivity, each by the right team for the job.
Director Sally Cookson’s vision for La Strada is as collective as the circus in its story travelling the bleak roads of post-war Italy. As well as composer/lyricist Benji Bowers and ‘Writer in the Room’ Mike Akers, she has gathered a 13-strong team of actor/musicians to tell the story of simple little Gelsomina, the waif sold by her mother to the sinister strongman Zampano to be his gofer, replacing her sister who has mysteriously died. Canadian Audrey Brisson, the enchanting Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk last year and a singer/musician and circus performer brought up in Cirque du Soleil, holds the centre as this obstinate innocent, around whom life swirls bewilderingly out of her control. Diminutive, graceful, acrobatic and supremely expressive, with huge eyes that dominate even this steep auditorium and haunting voice singing the wordless refrain that is her theme, hers is a compelling presence.
True there is first one and then a second (male) constant in her life in the abusive Zampano (Stuart Goodwin, a magnificently convincing strongman with a heart as hard and unyielding as its enclosing chest muscles that break an iron chain in his act) and kind and gentle Il Matto, the fool and tightrope walker whose mission is to liberate Gelsomina (Canadian Bart Soroczynski, proving he is equally at home in the circus and at the RSC with a performance as tender as it is spectacularly physical).
But it’s the ensemble work from the multi-talented ensemble representing many nations that creates the road, the run-down cities, seedy bars and circus gigs out of thin air with just a few props, sharing the narrative and the atmospheric music. Italy, Finland, Corsica, Vietnam, Canada and Israel are all represented, the last by the wonderfully versatile Niv Petel, so effective in his own solo show Knock, Knock about bereavement in Israel’s conscript army. To him go the honours of opening the show – and providing that most evocative of musical accompaniments, the harmonica. He is extraordinarily watchable, but of course he never pulls focus.
See it for the eerie beauty of Katie Sykes’s set, dominated by a single telegraph pole and brought to colourful life by this extraordinary company. Watch as they conjure a motorbike with a few tyres and find out whether Gelsomina can make her escape and take control of her life. An evening of sad and wondrous collective storytelling.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Robert Day
La Strada runs until Saturday 8 July. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat only), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £20-£39.50. The Other Palace, SW1 E 5JA. 08442 642 121. www.theotherpalace.co.uk
Knock, Knock, Niv Petel’s solo show, runs Wednesday 2 – Monday 28 August. 7.30pm (daily; except 14 Aug). £6.50-£10.50. Edinburgh Fringe, Venue 41, C Primo, EH2 3JP. https://tickets.edfringe.com