La Strada (Richmond Theatre)

La Strada (Richmond Theatre, until March 4th)

Magic is in the air at Richmond Theatre this week thanks to the bewitching and creative new piece of theatre, La Strada.

It is based on Federico Fellini’s stunning 1954 silver screen masterpiece and while the plot essentials are there it is about as far removed from the film as it could be. It is as though a muse has inhaled the spirit of the movie and breathed into the imaginations of the cast and creators to produce something new, quirky and striking.

The poignant story tells of a naive young girl sold through poverty to a travelling strongman and the life they lead as she becomes his assistant and as they join a circus troupe. It is a simple tale yet has layers of relationships, loneliness, independence… in fact, perhaps the audience needs to work out which works best for them as they experience it.

The plain grey set, complete with hanging ropes, chains and drapes (a striking design by Katie Sykes), allows the performers to paint their own colours and this creativity is reflected in the fact that the company devised La Strada from a blank canvas other than knowing the film and having its script. It is to their credit that director Sally Cookson and writer Mike Akers developed the production in this way as the story itself is about growth, originality and becoming.

As the awkward Gelsomina Audrey Brisson shines. It is a physical and expressive performance, almost in the style of the old silent film comedies (think a blend of Keaton and Chaplin), and the audience can only carried along by her personal journey from wide-eyed ingenuousness to the bolder young adult who can dare to stand up to her stage partner’s cruelty.

Stuart Goodwin is brutal and unpleasant as the strongman Zampanò, caring for little but his own fame and greed, yet somehow strangely affected by his fresh-faced young ward. His role is balanced superbly by Bart Soroczynski’s enigmatic Fool, a world-weary clown who plants seeds of freedom in Gelsomina’s mind. Into the comic role Soroczynski is also able to add some splendid touches of circus performance and the audience warms to him more every time he is on stage.

Those three might be the only named characters, but a remarkable cast of performers, singers and musicians make up an ensemble that displays individual talent yet work together almost as a single entity, thanks to the skill of movement director Cameron Carver. Using simple props they become a bustling street crowd, rowdy pub clientele or a motorcycle, gliding and swishing their way up poles, over boxes and across the boards.

The original music by Benji Bower, all played live on a range of instruments onstage, has a folksy yet ethereal feel, and Gelosomina’s theme is a haunting tune that stays with you long after you have left the theatre.

This bold and beautiful work is not a literal translation of the Oscar-winning movie, but it captures its very essence. The visual cinematographic treat becomes a small show with big ideas which are executed gloriously and which has its own eccentric charm. It is heartening and heartbreaking, ever fluid and always challenging perceptions about life and the imagination.

David Guest