Tristan Bates Theatre
Reviewed – 10th June 2018
“The key players are never given a chance just to be themselves and convince they are worth rooting for”
A creaky, wooden interior. Barrels serve as tables, milk crates as chairs. There are shelves stuffed with champagne glasses and bottles of wine. A jaunty band whip up a storm on accordion, violin and double bass, setting the stage for a bohemian romp into the past … San Domino, Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker’s 1939-set musical, starts with promise, but quickly disappoints.
Eight Italian men in this café in Catania, Sicily are rounded up, labelled as degenerates, convicted to ‘internal exile’ and shipped off to San Domino, an island off the east coast of southern Italy to serve their sentence. Their crime? Being gay. Imprisoned, relationships between the boys (and a woman!) flourish and fall, lives are put at stake and one camp guard discovers an inconvenient (and ironic?) truth about himself. How will the boys get home, and what will they have lost?
The plot is ambitious and its themes vital. In the tight Tristan Bates Theatre, it bursts at the seams. Faye Bradley’s gorgeous set design does its best with a small space. With a humongous cast of thirteen, the ensemble seems restricted in movement, and Matthew Gould’s direction at times leaves the actors awkwardly in the way of action. Generally speaking, the ensemble excels in the musical numbers, with stand-out vocals from Callum Hale and Joe Etherington. The star of the show is Andrew Pepper’s cross-dressing Pietro though. Pepper is witty, flamboyant, charismatic and utterly bewitching.
San Domino’s biggest fault is Anfilogoff’s book and lyrics. With such a large host of characters, it becomes difficult to care enough about each of them. New characters are introduced and new storylines thrown in making such a soup of information that it becomes quite hard to follow. Dramatic leaps are made with little or no reasoning behind them. Songs are asked to carry too much narrative weight than they can deliver. The key players are never given a chance just to be themselves and convince they are worth rooting for. Most disappointing is the decision to give what feels like the majority of romantic airtime to the only heterosexual relationship in the show. What should be a core relationship, and perhaps the only positive gay relationship in the show, is briefly mentioned, forgotten about, and, suddenly, the couple are performing a covert, ceremonial marriage ritual, leaving the audience (read: me) thinking: “What on earth have I missed?”
San Domino does offer a crucial insight into Europe’s fascist history, and its punishment of gay men. The band are superb, and almost every actor whips out an instrument at some point. “Cack-handed” and “Letters From Home” are two songs that show off the skills of the entire creative team beautifully, and suggest that Anfilogoff and Whittaker could become a formidable musical producing partnership.
To address gay history through theatre and song is bold and brave, and though no romp, San Domino is informative, emotional, and a story well worth hearing.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Rachael Cummings
Tristan Bates Theatre until 30th June
Previously reviewed at this venue