Filumena at the Piccadilly Theatre
Feigning a terminal illness, former prostitute Filumena Maturano (Judi Dench) persuades her lover to marry her, effecting a miraculous recovery as soon as the vows are pronounced. The hapless Domenico (Michael Pennington), who had planned to celebrate his wife's passing with his lover Diana, unleashes a stream of invective silenced only by the revelation that one of Filumena's three sons - of whose existence Domenico had been entirely ignorant - is his. He is as determined to find out which one is his as Filumena is to ensure that each of them receives equal material and emotional attention from her lover.
From the opening strains of a tarantella drifting through the window to the heavy polished furniture in the apartment, there is no doubt where we are, but this is Soho pizza-parlour Italy, not the real thing. Pennington's overplayed body language - all finger-flicking and thigh-slapping - detracts from an otherwise strong performance and Yvonne Bonnamy's Rosalia and Louise Breslin's Teresina are at times kosher rather than cappuccino.
As the eponymous heroine, Dench completely dominates the action and the stage. Her unmistakable, throaty tones embody all the anger and anguish of a passionate yet controlled woman whose pent-up resentment and hurt has fermented for a quarter of a century, whisking the audience from laughter to pity in an instant. Her supremely funny quick-fire insults, moving monologues describing her former life and sheer physical energy overshadow a cast whose roles are mostly cameo or foil to her Filumena.
A neatly choreographed clown-fight between the three sons adds a note of high comedy as does their singing competition. Jason Watkins as Michele - faintly reminiscent of William Hague in a boilersuit - upstages a lacklustre John Gordon Sinclair, who is wasted in the role of Riccardo, and the insignificant Umberto, played by Laurence Mitchell.
Eduardo de Filippo was as much social commentator as playwright and at one level Filumena is an indictment of poverty-stricken, post-war Naples society which engendered and condoned prostitution. But fifty years after the play's first performance, it is the eloquent exposition of human character motivation which resonates most strongly through the title role. In short, Judi Dench makes Filumena a must-see.