Pre-war wrongful imprisonment in Fascist Italy makes San Domino, by Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker at The Tristan Bates Theatre, a promising concept, especially when constructed as a musical. With the Italian characters speaking in English, and the one Brit putting on a thick Italian accent, it immediately feels like ‘Allo ‘Allo crossed with Tenko. Sadly, it lacks the humour of the first, and struggles to be as compelling as the second.
With Mussolini firmly in power, homosexuals are being rounded up and sent to the prison island of San Domino. With no due process there’s a real sense of injustice felt in the first act, yet that isn’t sustained for very long. The island becomes home to a lawyer, bartender, priest and numerous other characters, so there’s plenty of scope to delve deep in to how these different characters bond and survive.
But the opportunity is lost in a medley of muddled tunes. The irony of Il Duce’s plan was that the island created a community where men could be openly gay, but there’s very little indication as to how anything has changed for the group, they don’t seem to feel a new lease of freedom, nor does their imprisonment feel like a hardship. The inmates are friendly with the guards and drink Marsala wine, while the losses they do suffer are a result of their own petty actions.
San Domino chooses, rightly so, not to focus on the sexual antics that were facilitated by the situation, there’s a brief scene where it’s implied but generally it steers clear of an easy line of promiscuity. It tries hard to develop relationships between the men, but they are pretty much glossed over in favour of a heterosexual relationship between a female worker and the straight inmate imprisoned by mistake. The fact that this character accepts his punishment, and the men responsible, so easily is in itself unbelievable, but that this relationship forms such a large part of the story seems counter-intuitive.
The performance starts in the bar, the cast laying on a jaunty tune that feels like we are in for a night of fun fascism, sadly once inside the theatre the score doesn’t live up to what was promised just moments before. In fact, it’s not until the penultimate song that we see a glimmer of what could have been, ‘Letters From Home’ allows the characters to let go, and we finally get some emotion over narrative, especially from David Gibbons in the role of Franco.
There’s a lot of mumbling and dithering going on, at some points it’s difficult to know if the performance is still happening, or if the cast have decided to just chat amongst themselves. Generally though, they do a good job with what they’ve been given, Alexander Hulme is particularly strong as bartender Claudio, and Andrew Pepper’s Pietro/Mellissa brings some much needed flair.
San Domino, could do with deciding what exactly it wants to be, comedy can often be weaved with tragedy but only if it’s done properly; lines like “our souls are ruined” (think about it) and the lyrics “do I lament the fact that I’m bent” only cheapen what could have been a deeply affecting play. There was so much potential here, but it feels confused and lost at sea.