Tristan Bates Theatre, London – until 30 June 2018
Mussolini never killed people, just sent them to holiday camps. So says the tagline, borrowed from Silvio Berlusconi, for San Domino, Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker’s curious little romp of a musical play which opened last night at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre. The titular camp in question is an extra-judicial detention centre for gay men during Mussolini’s fascist regime.
The play – inspired by true events and obviously influenced by Sherman’s BENT – begins at the decadent Musicians’ Club in Catania in 1939. It is the run-up to the Second World War and the hard drinking and lascivious celebrazione of the club’s clientele is brought to a sudden halt by the intervention of the authorities who deem their gay lifestyle to be ‘degenerate’. Promptly dispatched to San Domino, the hapless patrons wrestle with their lives, their loves (and sometimes each other), the turmoil of their fate playing out against the backdrop of the war.
Left in these brutal confines, the prescriptive measures included no card games or writing materials: but the heinous guards are decent enough to leave the inmates with a couple of guitars and a tambourine, which, of course, the inmates put to good use.
There is quite a decent show here struggling to escape despite a few directorial howlers from Matthew Gould. The finger puppet which appears on top of a drape to represent the Judge, during the trial scene, doesn’t work and there is a fair bit of narrative cliché – including a stigmatic/flagellating trainee priest, a closeted prison guard and a knife wielding alpha gay predator.
Talented musicians, great musical direction, from James Cleeve, and some catchy numbers, move things along at a very pleasant pace. And the cast is absolutely terrific.
Ross McKenna’s shifty informant Luca is very well observed; the jinxed (straight) lovers Franco and Lucia, played by David Gibbons and Hannah Genesius, in an intriguing subplot, caught the eye as well.
But for me the standout performance of the evening was Andrew Jardine’s sinister Chief of Police.
Onstage for no more than three minutes, Jardine’s presence was mesmerising. Strong, bold and effortlessly commanding, (and forgive the WW2 cinema analogy) he exuded the contrasting malevolence of a Fiennes with the charisma of a Fassbender. Definitely an actor to watch.