Eduardo De Filippo is one of the many playwrights with a stellar reputation in their own lands who has failed to capture popular imagination in Britain – although his plays do get the occasional airing over here.
Ian McKellen, who appeared at the National in Napoli Milionara 20 years ago, returns to Chichester after a 40-year gap to play the ageing Don.
The play, a mixture of King Lear and The Godfather, takes place in a day in the life of Don Antonio Barracano, the local padrone. Bolstered by the wealth gathered from a career in organised crime in the US (fleeing Naples after committing what he calls a justified murder) he acts as moral guardian and unofficial arbiter of the region.
McKellen is excellent as Don Antonio, jogging and air-boxing in his gown to keep the stresses of his 75 years at bay. There's no rage in his voice but the unmistakable menace when he warns of a reception committee in New York leaves no-one in doubt of the intended meaning. But there's a benevolence too – this Lear has given away his land but has a devoted family and he looks to solve other family quarrels.
There's a strong performance too from Michael Pennington as the Don's faithful doctor, disgusted with his association with petty criminals and constantly threatening to leave, before coming into his own at the play's climax. There also a fine performance from Annie Hemingway as a young woman trying to keep her fiancé on the straight and narrow, while Oliver Cotton bristles with a proud independence as a baker who dares to face up to the don.
There are some familiar Italian themes, recognisable to anyone who's seen a Mafia film - the importance of good food and eating together, the sanctity of the family, the spiralling frenzy of a blood feud.
Sean Mathias's direction extracts a degree of suspense from the play and Angela Davies' set captures the essence of a southern Italian summer but there's little substance to the play. Only the nuanced performance of McKellen lifts this above an Italian potboiler - on this evidence, De Felippo can languish in the curiosity corner for some while.
- Maxwell Cooter