Complex and highly emotionally charged, San Domino is a truly poetic piece of theatre!
BASED on a true story about the incarceration of gay men in Mussolini’s pre-war Italy, this is a stunning new musical that deserves a much bigger venue and an international audience.
It has many elements that are dark and tragic – including two suicides, a murder and an execution but ultimately it shows that love, devotion and honesty can overcome oppression.
The evening opens with patriotic and propagandist music and singing in the bar, as the cast lead us to the auditorium.
A group of gay men, including a slightly older prominent lawyer, played sympathetically by Matthew Hendrickson, a guilt-ridden trainee priest (Roger Parkins) an outrageous drag queen, conveyed lovingly and sarcastically by Andrew Pepper all meet with others in what purports to be a musicians’ club but is really a gay underground venue.
When they are joined by a drunken straight man Franco, (David Gibbons) the stage is set for fun and games.
Enter the Chief of Police, a nasty piece of work played menacingly by Andrew Jardine, who decides that although homosexuality is not against the law he will commit them through a tribunal to what he calls “civil death” – internment on the Adriatic island of San Domino.
In a way he does them a huge favour – and here is the first ironic twist in Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker’s fast-moving script. For the first time in their lives – apart from Franco – they can truly be themselves – liberated by their imprisonment together.
But their reconciliation to their lot is shattered by the arrival of the thuggish, but darkly handsome Mario, played with delightful menace by Grant Neal.
The plot twists this way and that, including a doomed hetero encounter by Franco with the island’s only girl (Hannah Genesius).
Interwoven in the at times poetic dialogue, are songs by James Cleeve, which reveal the characters inner thoughts and cleverly carry the story forward – I particularly like the anthem of self-doubt “Why Like This” which they sing on the open seas on the way to their prison camp.
In another twist, the gay English tourist, caught up in the arrests, played with Gilbert and Sullivan relish by Mark Stewart, is given a cod-Italian accent, while the Italians speak in perfect English – as if to isolate the hapless Andrew.
In the end, as war looms, the survivors all go forward with their lives in their different ways. The actor/ musicians supplemented with a small cabaret style band, are all exceptionally good and it’s a feel-good show despite the bleakness of some of its storyline.
See it if you possible can – it’s a great night in the theatre.
San Domino runs at the Tristan Bates theatre in Covent Garden until June 30
Review by Brian Butler.