Adapting cinema for the stage is an undertaking often fraught with challenges. This is especially true when you are taking an Oscar-winning film from the director of 8½ and La Dolce Vita and turning it into a theatrical epic. La Strada takes on this challenge and just about succeeds in crafting a thoroughly enjoyable production.
The play tells the story of the innocent Gelsomina, who is sold by her penniless mother to Zampanò, a violent sideshow strongman. They journey across Italy, performing Zampanò's act before joining a travelling circus. Here they come into conflict with Il Matto, who takes an interest in Gelsomina, much to the fury of Zampanò. This leads to a devastating confrontation and a surprisingly downbeat ending.
La Strada further demonstrates director Sally Cookson's ability to shape adaptations into successful productions. Her previous credits include Jane Eyre (Bristol Old Vic), Peter Pan (National Theatre), Hetty Feather and We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Alongside writer Mike Akers, she has shaped a devised piece with the cast that does justice to the source material. The play is an engaging, often funny watch that takes some unexpected turns and is enthused with a melancholy that gives the play a bitter edge. It has a lived-in quality that comes from being crafted with the input of the cast which makes it all the more interesting to watch.
The production's ensemble are exceptional and the play comes alive during the crowd scenes, creating an electric atmosphere. Integrating the musicians into the cast, La Strada is at its strongest when Benji Bower's fabulous songs take centre stage. Audrey Brisson (who played the young girl in Kneehigh's fantastic The Wild Bride) makes a fascinating Gelsomina, bringing out the character's quirks and nuances effectively, while Stuart Goodwin almost manages to become likeable as Zampanò, an achievement given the repugnant nature of his character. Yet the production threatens to be stolen away by Bart Soroczynski as Il Matto (The Fool). Effortlessly charming, Soroczynski's arrival near the interval gives La Strada a boost even as it threatens to flag, and in his fleeting time on stage Il Matto emerges as the production's heart.
The play for the most part seeks a timeless quality in its design. We are informed that this story is a thousand years old, happening today and right now, and beyond a few references and the presence of Zampanò's motorcycle (skilfully created by the cast using wheels, boxes and a set of handlebars), the production does not offer a fixed time period. This is seen both in set design and costuming, adding to the fairy tale quality of La Strada. The lighting is particularly atmospheric and on a technical level the production is outstanding. If there is an issue with the production it is that, at times, it finds difficulty in finding an emotional through-line. The best fairy tales engage on a human level and this is sadly something La Strada fails to do.
La Strada is a neatly devised fable with great ensemble cast and some great music. While at times it left me unengaged emotionally it makes up for this by being theatre on a grandiose scale and is certainly worth checking out.