The Light in the Piazza
Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed – 18th June 2019
“Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous”
The Light in the Piazza lands in its London premiere with a level of prestige – it scooped up no less than six Tony Awards during its Broadway run in 2005. While the musical consequently carries with it an inherent air of quality, it also finds itself emblematic of the genre as a whole, as it glosses over and romanticises subject matter which deserves a little more nuance.
Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer (which was also released as a film two years later), The Light in the Piazza follows the journey of Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming), whose developmentally disabled daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) falls in love while the pair are on holiday in Florence with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). Margaret grapples with letting go of her child and allowing her to live independently with Fabrizio, although in doing so she never fully discloses the nature of Clara’s disability to the Naccarelli family; it’s a decision that comes with huge ethical implications and ramifications, albeit ones that the show seems quite happy to ignore.
Adam Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous, and Kimberly Grigsby’s conducting makes the music feel like it fully lives and breathes with the characters and the story. Despite that the style starts to feel somewhat overfamiliar in the latter half the show, there are still a variety of hugely enjoyable numbers, such as Say It Somehow and Let’s Walk. Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’ libretto are full of quirks, wit, and humanity, but neither feel like they genuinely facilitate any true depth to the themes or characters. Despite this, there are some excellent performances on display in Piazza, particularly Fleming as Margaret, who keeps guilt and uncertainty bubbling underneath a frothy exterior, and Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli, whose charm and self-assuredness beautifully counterbalances the more melodramatic facets of the other characters. Every single member of the cast delivers immaculate vocals, and Robert Jones’ scenic design and Mark Henderson’s lighting harmoniously provide some stunning aesthetics. Piazza is undoubtedly a visual and aural treat.
However, the substance simply isn’t there to support it. Understanding and misunderstanding are prominent themes in Piazza – the Johnsons don’t speak great Italian and the Naccarellis don’t speak great English so their meanings aren’t always perfectly conveyed to each other, and some scenes and songs are entirely in Italian, so that the audience have to rely on the visual storytelling alone (which, thanks to Daniel Evans’ direction, is stellar). It suggests that the love between Clara and Fabrizio transcends barriers such as language or disability, but the fact that Fabrizio falls so swiftly for a woman with the mental and emotional capacities of a twelve-year-old draws allusions to the seedy over-sexualisation of young girls in society, and the fact that Fabrizio isn’t made aware of long-term effects that the disability will have on the relationship makes the romance feel unearned and untrue. And unfortunately, Piazza hinges itself on the romance.
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by Dewynters
The Light in the Piazza
Royal Festival Hall until 5th July
Last ten shows covered by this reviewer:
Reviewed – 3rd April 2018
Operation Overlord was a planned invasion of Normandy by allied troops which began on June 6th and is better known as D-Day. The invasion was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history that required extensive planning with 350,000 lives depending on what was arguably the most important weather forecast of all time. Eisenhower initially selected June 5th as the date for the invasion, however bad weather on the days leading up to the operation caused it to be delayed for 24 hours.
Much has been recorded on film, page and stage about the invasion. Less has been featured about why the delay was agreed to and the vital role weathermen played in the historic event. However this is rectified by the meticulously researched Pressure, written by and starring David Haig.
He plays Group Captain James Stagg, a dour Scottish Royal Air Force meteorologist seconded to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Portsmouth. The play begins with his energetic arrival on June 2nd and moves forward in periods of time reflected by the changing weather maps he uses to give Eisenhower the best possible weather forecast for the invasion.
Initially he is shocked by how badly prepared his operation room is and that he has to share it with the confident and ultimately compassionate Lieutenant Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers). He doesn’t improve the initial tension between them both by dumping her correspondence from her desk that he has chosen to be his.
The set itself is fairly bare leaving room for the floor to ceiling weather maps the cast and audience follow as the play progresses. The French windows enable us to experience black outs and the unpleasant English weather outside. The wind and rain effect created was especially impressive.
Eisenhower, commands the stage with his towering authority, played expertly by Malcolm Sinclair. The interaction between him and Stagg takes many stances but includes several humorous moments, particularly when the rules of rugby are explained. The initial conflict in the play is between Stagg and the American weatherman Colonel Krick (Philip Cairns) who takes a contrary viewpoint as to what the weather conditions are likely to be. Eisenhower initially sides with his countryman but slowly begins to accept that Stagg has a far better scientific and strong instinct approach to the English Channel’s notoriously changeable weather conditions. As the story unfolds we also learn of further pressures on Stagg’s shoulders, we see his stress levels rise to almost breaking point.
Haig has written an engrossing drama that gives a good sense of the war being fought in real time and the difficult decisions that people had to make with thousands of lives at stake. The casting is spot on and Haig, is ably supported by ten excellent actors. The direction from John Dove keeps the action moving well throughout and the overall experience is enhanced by Colin Richmond’s simple but effective stage design. Lighting from Tim Mitchell recreates the feeling of the period as does the sound from Philip Pinsky. The video work from Andrzej Goulding enables the audience to keep in touch with events as the timeline unfolds.
This wonderful production pays homage to Group Captain James Stagg who was appointed an OBE for his valuable services during the planning of D-Day, an event that changed the course of history. A fabulous play that remains in the mind long after curtain call.
Reviewed by Steve Sparrow
Photography by Robert Day
Park Theatre until 28th April then transfers to the Ambassadors Theatre from 6th June until 1st September