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Review of San Domino at Tristan Bates Theatre

San Domino - The company Photo by Rachael Cummings
San Domino – The company Photo by Rachael Cummings

It’s one of those curious choices of subject matter for a musical – an internment camp set up by Fascist Italy under Mussolini for homosexual men. In San Domino, a musical named for the island off the coast of Italy that is now a summer tourist destination, it’s clear the authorities just don’t get it.

Even if there were, hypothetically, such a thing as a ‘gay cure’, rounding gay men up and locking them away in a secure location where the only other people (aside from prison staff) are other gay men, is simply not the way to do it. San Domino became, rather ironically, a sort of openly gay community.

There are, of course, attempts by the regime to get them to change their ways, though the production does not dramatize the punishments meted out by the state. The show follows the convention of having a critical incident as a pivot, and the joyous music of the first act begins even before the curtain rises. The Chief of Police (Andrew Jardine), bursts in on a bar run by Claudio (Alexander Hulme), gets them to sing the national anthem, rather than the jaunty tunes they were playing before. The scene changes to denote travel from Catania to San Domino (a distance of 790 kilometres according to Google Maps) and the inevitably cramped accommodation in the prison are simple but effective.

The Chief has rounded up the entire group of people who happened to be in Claudio’s bar, such that collectively, the prisoners are not, as it turns out, all attracted to the same sex. The show seems to revel in this kind of gentle but nonetheless dark humour, that acts as comic relief from what is essentially an emotionally heavy plotline. The production punches above its weight in having fifteen characters and having the vast majority exposed to significant character development.

The sound was well balanced, and a four-piece band, led by James Cleeve, was supplemented by regular actor-musicianship, even within the walls of what the flamboyant drag queen Pietro (Andrew Pepper) referred to as “a prison for poofs”. Some suspension of disbelief is required – whether they really would have been allowed guitars is beside the point. A general point about love being able to transcend the worst excesses of a dictatorial regime is somewhat overdone. While it is nearly always lovely to listen to musical theatre tunes where two characters’ emotions are running so strongly that they cannot help but burst into song, this is a little like Aspects of Love, though I suppose there is fun to be had keeping up with who is sleeping with whom.

Despite playing an antagonist character, Callum Hale as Paolo was the stand-out performance for me, highly convincing as a prison official who believed in the values of the Mussolini regime (or was he merely brainwashed?). Roger Parkins as Antonio, an ordinand (the word is never used but fits his status as someone in training to be a priest in the Catholic Church), palpably wrestles with his moral conscience, particularly when a prison officer presents himself for confession.

Bedroom activity in the show is implied – one can only imagine what a National Theatre production of this show would be like – and the musical numbers are suitably varied in tempo and rhythm. Occasionally, the show feels like there are sections of spoken dialogue that are too long, as though the audience is waiting for the next song to start. At the end of the day, there are still examples of wrongful imprisonment in this day and age, and this production serves as a good reminder that whatever obstacles life throws at us, life is what we make of it. A fine and highly watchable production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Based on the reality of Mussolini’s persecution of homosexuals, this is the story of men sentenced to five years confinement for degeneracy.

One night in 1939, Carlo, Claudio and friends are arrested in Catania.
Condemned without any trial, they arrive on San Domino: a prison island solely for gay men. For all the indignity and squalor of prison life, men previously forced to live in the shadows now have no need to hide who they are. But whatever kind of life they may be trying to build, in the background war is looming.
Actor-musicians conjure up an intimate tragi-comic world of love, loss and the struggle just to survive.

Carlo – Matthew Hendrickson
Antonio – Roger Parkins
Paolo – Callum Hale
Franco – David Gibbons
Vittorio – Christopher Laishley
Lucia – Hannah Genesius
Andrew – Mark Stewart
Luca – Ross McKenna
Claudio – Alexander Hulme
Chief of Police – Andrew Jardine
Lorenzo – Joe Etherington
Pietro – Andrew Pepper
Mario – Grant Neal

James Cleeve: Musical Director / Accordian
Rosa Lennox: Assistant MD / Accordian
Doug Grannel: Bass
Rosie Judge: Violin

Book & Lyrics Tim Anfilogoff
Composer Alan Whittaker
Director Matthew Gould
Musical Director James Cleeve
Set Designer: Faye Bradley
Lighting Designer: Mitchell Reeve
Sound Designer: Sam Glossop

TKD Productions & M. Green Productions present San Domino
Tristan Bates Theatre
1A Tower St,
Covent Garden, WC2H 9NP
Tuesday 5 to Saturday 30 June


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