Napoli, Brooklyn (Park Theatre)

Napoli, Brooklyn (Park Theatre, London, until July 13th)

Imagine the search for escape and home in Chekhov mixed with the character drama and life-changing events of Ibsen and the social commentary of Arthur Miller and you begin to have some idea of what to expect from Meghan Kennedy’s extraordinary new play Napoli, Brooklyn.

Original Theatre Company in association with Park Theatre presents the play’s European Premiere with the London run the culmination of a UK tour and the production proves compelling and beautiful with such scale it cries out to be adapted for cinema.

Napoli, Brooklyn tells the story of Italian immigrants and their three fiercely independent daughters, trying to live the American Dream in 1960, learning through forgiving, forgetting and moving away from routine. It may be loosely based on the writer’s own family history but it’s impossible not to think of this as Three Sisters with hope and good cheer.

But here it’s not just the sisters wanting to break away from abusive, dreary and forlorn lives. This is a play with strong roles and lines for all the female cast – there are six women in the cast of eight – all of whom have a vision of escaping from their insipidity. And, unlike Chekhov, these characters deserve the dreams they dream as they weigh up their roots versus liberation on a new frontier and which, to some extent, they all realise with the possibility of optimistic futures that could bring fresh experience and vitality.

Short and snappy scenes drive the story forward, though there’s a slight danger of this meaning characters aren’t as clearly built up as we might hope. Nevertheless, the skill and proficiency of this magnificent cast make up for any slight shortcomings there and it never becomes messy or unwatchably complicated. The cast also manage to avoid any of the characters descending into caricature, which could happen with so many being rather larger than life.

Holding so much together is Madeleine Worrall’s Luda, the mother who feels her faith strongest when in the kitchen, but who can only cry by sniffing onions, which somehow serve as a God-substitute (a trope also used here in the catastrophic event at the end of the first act). She suffers, perhaps even welcomes, her husband’s cruelty and surely has the right to the flirtatious possibilities offered by the local butcher (a genuine and heart-warming Stephen Hogan).

The three sisters at the heart of the drama couldn’t be more different yet love, support and encourage each other. Hannah Bristow’s impeccably performed Francesca is the rebellious tomboy in love with best friend Connie, the butcher’s daughter (Laurie Ogden) and feels the only path to freedom for them both is for a new life in France. There is a beautiful moment between them which is simply choreographed, a mime which cries out for what could be were love to flourish freely.

Francesca has been protected from the hands of their disciplinarian father during a major confrontation which took place before  the start of the play by her sister Vita (a gritty and plucky Georgia May Foote), who is banished to a convent yet is never burdened by what it represents or demands.

Third sister Tina (a robust and resolute Mona Goodwin) is the eldest yet the most timid, only discovering what voice she may have through a work colleague, Celia (a resilient and quietly powerful Gloria Onitiri).

The dark side of the Muscolino family life comes in the shape of the overbearing father Nic (a potent and muscular performance from Robert Cavanah), disappointed that he is merely laying tarmac in New York when he could have been a prince in Italy. Yet even this hard to like character is given enough to evoke some sympathy as he relates his passage to the New World as a stowaway and his passionate realisation that his aspirations are just delusions.

Director Lisa Blair allows this domestic drama with boundless implications to play out especially through the accomplished performances of the quality cast, though never overwhelming the story or text.

It is true that there are elements of significant contrivance (the climax to Act 1 rattles the set and the script though it feels too big a coincidence that all the characters and the plot set-ups that go before it are affected) and some themes (such as the Catholicism: statues of the Virgin Mary are much in evidence on Frankie Bradshaw’s adaptable set, there are several instances of prayer and of blaming God for things that haven’t come to pass and the convent setting of Vita’s ‘punishment’) are brought to the fore without necessarily being explored in any depth.

But taken as a whole this is two hours of immaculately conceived and beautifully realised new work, shining with hope for a browbeaten humanity, from an American writer from whom we can surely expect even greater things.

David Guest

Image, Marc Brenner

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub