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Review Round-up: Critics Join McKellen's Syndicate

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Mike Poulton’s new version of Eduardo De Filippo’s 1960 dark comedy Il Sindaco Del Riono Sanità, The Syndicate opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre this week (2 August, previews from 21 July) where it runs to 20 August 2011 prior to a national tour.

Ian McKellen is reunited with director Sean Mathias – who directed him to Whatsonstage.com Award-winning effect in Waiting for Godot in 2009 - in the production, playing Italian crime boss Don Antonio alongside Michael Pennington and Cherie Lunghi.

Marks McKellen’s first appearance at Chichester in decades, The Syndicate is set in Naples, Italy and explores the lives of Mafia bosses striving to obtain and sustain power by any means necessary.

Maxwell Cooter

"Ian McKellen, who appeared at the National in Napoli Milionara 20 years ago… 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 … 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. Sean Mathias's direction extracts a degree of suspense from the play and Angela Davies' set captures the essence of a southern Italian summer … Only the nuanced performance of McKellen lifts this above an Italian potboiler."

Michael Billington

"Eduardo de Filippo was one of the great figures of European theatre. But his penultimate play… strikes me as one of his lesser pieces … It is chiefly memorable for a glorious central performance from Ian McKellen … McKellen gives superb value as this unquiet Don and has the instinctive authority of a man used to being obeyed … A Robin Hood in Armani clothing who wants to clean up the streets of Naples …Sean Mathias's handsome production also contains a number of other very good performances. Michael Pennington invests the Don's medical sidekick with exactly the right air of terrified loyalty, Oliver Cotton exudes white-suited arrogance as a dictatorial master baker, and Gavin Fowler lends his maltreated son a simmering, murderous resentment … It's an evening where you rejoice more in the acting than in the over-optimistic message."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"It’s a big juicy role for Ian McKellen… but after Coppola’s great Godfather movies it has to be said that The Syndicate seems excessively cosy and sentimental in its view of the criminal classes. Despite his strong stage presence McKellen cuts a bizarre figure as the good-hearted Neapolitan Godfather, making offers people can’t refuse like Brando with a Lancashire accent but bearing a strange physical resemblance to Sir Harold Macmillan ... Sean Mathias’s production seems sturdy rather than inspired, and McKellen is hardly called upon to stretch himself … There is strong support from Michael Pennington… and exceptionally promising work from newcomer Gavin Fowler … But despite a few strong moments, The Syndicate proves a disappointingly soft-centred and only intermittently gripping play, and this lavish production seems both an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of McKellen’s formidable talent."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"The Syndicate is worth seeing for an immense central performance by Ian McKellen who brings intelligence, gravity and a weary drollness to his role … We see… his relationship with Fabio (a potent Michael Pennington) a passionate man who has served as his doctor for 35 years … Sean Mathias's production is slickly achieved. Some of the supporting performances seem overemphatic, and Cherie Lunghi is rather wasted in the smallish role of Antonio's wife. But the company generates an atmosphere of real emotional density, in which all the characters have areas of vulnerability. The play itself creates a buzzing menace. But this fizzles out; its optimism rings hollow, and the plotting is a little clunky. It works best as a study of a complex character, and McKellen ensures that this is realised stunningly."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

Down at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, Ian McKellen is playing a Neapolitan mafia don. Not that you would think it from looking at and listening to him … There is a beautiful delicacy to Mr Pennington’s stage work. If Fabio throws a lingering glare, it is not overdone. When his voice cracks it is not ‘theatrical’. He is a master of elegant sufficiency, never too much, just enough to let us see … A mundane set only comes good in the final dinner party scene, when the table revolves to give the three-sided auditorium a view of all the guests. Don Antonio, by now ailing, is given a microphone. At once Sir Ian’s vocal characterisation, until this point unmemorable, reaches a higher level. He does run up a lovely death scene, Sir Ian. Oliver Cotton is good as an honest baker who has the decency to defy Don Antonio’s bullying. Gavin Fowler as the baker’s son and Cherie Lunghi as the Don’s wife have strong moments … The reason this production is worth catching is the economic brilliance of Mr Pennington and the closing suggestion from playwright De Filippo that the cheating, violent populace earn the mafia they deserve."

- Caitlin Robertson


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