The answer is that De Filippo was a genuinely popular dramatist who wrote easily out of his own culture, while Pinter was a poet for the elite, distilling his own culture for a new one. And it’s that warm-hearted, natural Neapolitan flavour to De Filippo’s old-fashioned comedies that is so difficult to recreate in chilly north London.
The case for Filumena Marturano, the former prostitute who has tricked a wealthy businessman, Domenico Sopriano, into marrying her after sharing his life, or some of it, for a quarter of a century, was most persuasively made by Franco Zeffirelli and Joan Plowright.
Attenborough’s revival starring Samantha Spiro is jolly good, but it’s curiously inauthentic, too, and a bit too demure, despite the tangle of orange fire flowers climbing up the sun-baked walls of Domenico’s courtyard designed by Robert Jones and the constant chirruping birdsong on John Leonard’s soundtrack.
Tanya Ronder’s “new English version” (translated by whom, please?) is boldly non-Italianate, but much less idiomatic and zingy than Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s for Zeffirelli, or even Timberlake Wertenbaker’s for Peter Hall and Judi Dench in the last London airing.
But Spiro has a real spitfire quality and resilience about her that fully explains her background in the slums and the battle she’s waged to raise three sons in secret. Today, they all come to visit and toast their “new” parents, though only one of them was fathered by Domenico.
As a comic premise this must have gone down a treat in post-War Naples, but it’s hard to get worked up about it today, despite the best efforts of Clive Wood blustering for England as Domenico – Wood’s face and features are so large I though at one point he was going to swallow the stage and all its geranium pots, whole – and the rather coy participation of the grown-up sons.
Michele (Richard Riddell) is a harassed married plumber; Riccardo (Luke Norris, author of his own fine domestic play, Goodbye to All That, recently in the Theatre Upstairs) a shirt-selling shopkeeper and, like “Dad,” a ladies’ man, as they used to be called; and taciturn, bespectacled Umberto (Brodie Ross) a budding writer.
Their performances are nicely pointed with little material. There’s one vaguely shocking scene when one of Domenico’s girlfriends, Diana (Emily Plumbtree), is unceremoniously stripped of her naughty nurse’s costume by an avenging Filumena. And Sheila Reid and Geoffrey Freshwater twitter and harrumph nicely on the perimeter as domestic servants. But it’s a slight and over-cosy evening and not nearly as charming as you’d like.