It isn’t often that a writing team comes across a previously unknown subject, with a story which would seem to have been created especially for a musical theatre treatment, let alone one already conveniently set against the frenzied backdrop of a world about to erupt in war.
However, that’s exactly what Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker have got in San Domino, currently enjoying a second life as part of The Arcola’s Grimeborn Festival, having had an initial brief outing back in May at The Courtyard.
It’s all the more of a disappointment, therefore, that they seem to have taken what could so easily have been a winning formula, and by their kack-handed treatment of it created one of the most tedious evenings in the theatre it’s been my misfortune to have experienced this year.
The story is based in fact, if creatively treated for the exigencies of drama.
In 1939 the Fascist government in Italy rounded up a slew of the country’s homosexuals and interned them on an island in The Adriatic, the ‘San Domino’ of the title, situated right by the spur of Italy’s boot.
Our story concerns the usual cross-section of gay twenty-first century stereotypes; The Twink; The Barman: The Drag Queen; The Catholic Priest wrestling with his conscience; The Lawyer, who of course soon becomes their advocate; an Englishman; and, by one of the most contrived and unfortunate of circumstances, a lovelorn and illiterate straight farm-boy from the countryside who just happens to be drowning his sorrows in the local gay bar when Mussolini’s Chief of Police comes a-calling to round up all the degenerates.
They get shipped off to San Domino. Some of them hang themselves (off stage), one gets stabbed by a member of the mafia, who in turn gets shot (off stage), and the straight farm-boy has a night of passion with a local lass who gets smuggled into the camp, getting her (we later discover) pregnant (off stage).
The whole thing is topped and tailed by a framing device of gay tourists making a pilgrimage to the island to remember those who’d been imprisoned, and implausibly, the lesbian grand-daughter of the farm-boy and his one-night stand pops up with a letter from her grandmother urging her and everyone else to love whom she chooses. Cue finale…
So what’s wrong with that? I hear you say?
Where do I begin?
For a start, we’re back to our old friends, those three questions…
Whose story is it?
What do they want?
What’s stopping them from getting it?
Truth to tell, I don’t know, and I sat through the whole show, unlike a fair few of the audience who made their escape at the interval.
As those questions weren’t answered, the whole evening was merely a set of events. Stuff happened. These were characters with no back story, so independent life, and most importantly, no emotions to sing about.
In fact, the thing which came nearest to a successful character arch was the one-night stand between the farm-boy and the girl. Quite an achievement in a story supposedly about eight gay men, to make the only straight man among them the one you care about the most.
The problem lies largely, but not entirely, with the book which is almost completely devoid of period feel, and is structured as a play, not a musical. The music, when it does arrive, consists mainly of a sort of jangly guitar folk that puts me in mind of Lily Allen at times, but without the melodies or humour.
The songs are inexplicably random. Whereas characters in a musical should break into song when the emotional intensity becomes too much to be carried by speech alone, here the characters have stand up arguments with each other, then sing the most inane and whiney songs afterwards which in the main neither further the plot, nor illuminate the characters’ emotional lives.
The talented actor-musician cast battle bravely, and there are some nice performances from Nicholas Chiappetta as the priest, Antonio, who actually has (I kid you not) a dream ballet sequence at the start of Act Two, and Mark Lawson (no, not that one) as Andrew, the Englishman with the Italian Allo’ Allo’ accent.
However, they’re all hobbled before they start, and that can only be the fault of the writers.
Alan Whittaker puts what I take to be his personal email address in the back of the programme, together with the note that ‘The creative team would dearly love San Domino to have a life beyond Grimeborn.’ A touching, though I suspect misplaced, optimism.