Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

dom nd fil

Ken Agnew as Domenico and Sharon Clayton as Filumena, Pictures: Emily White


Highbury Theatre Centre


When you see Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall in the writing credits then the mind springs, naturally to comedy, after all Waterhouse gave us the likes of Billy Liar and the wry Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

And there is comedy, but this is as much . . . well, therein lies the problem, what, exactly is it? It is not really a laugh out loud knock-about comedy, nor is it a drama, a mystery or a thriller . . . it’s a sort of arms-length romcom.

Which is not a criticism, far from it, for this is a play with an unfamiliar style and about an unfamiliar culture, which adds an interest all of its own.

The play is a translation of the play Filumena Marturano by Eduardo de Filippo, the Neopolitan playwright much loved in Italy. It was written in 1946 for his sister, the famed Neopolitan actress Titina De Filippo, which, after a lukewarm opening became a massive hit.

Waterhouse and Hall wrote a translation in 1977 which was directed by no less than Franco Zeffirelli starring Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright, with Plowright’s husband, Laurence Olivier directing the New York transfer while a revival saw Judi Dench in the title role.

It’s a pedigree that suggests Filumena is a role an actress can get her teeth into and Sharon Clayton doesn’t disappoint in that respect. It is a big role and it needs a big performance from both her and Ken Agnew as her husband(ish - possibly) Domenico, to carry a play which in truth would be a little lightweight if either lost their way, because this is a play about relationships, what’s right, what’s wrong, what is fair, what is acceptable and what is not. The pair have to convince us or it does not work, and it worked quite superbly.

We open with Domenico having a rant, and a rant and . . . he does go on a bit. The poor chap seems a bit put out that he has ended up married to his live in . . . whore?  . . . of the past 25 years, by what he sees as trickery.

I hesitate as to saying what Filumena is. She is hardly a mistress, which is more of an amateur occupation, after all she was or perhaps still is, a prostitute, once employed in a brothel that was a favourite haunt of Domenico, where they first . . . met. Now as prostitution is a profession, the oldest I am told, is it like being a journalist – and no snide comments from the back, please – in that when you hang up your quill, or perhaps inkpot might be more appropriate here, that is still what you are, it’s just that you are not active or earning a crust by it anymore?

Especially as that is how our warring couple see it, he using her past as an insult, she accepting it as part of her life, who she was and, indeed, who she is.

As for Domenico, he has had his live in, let’s just call her Filumena, for a quarter of a century, showing her little respect, travelling a lot, always without her, offering little in the way of affection while having affairs at every opportunity, a somewhat cavalier disregard of fidelity perhaps more common in Italy than here, our present Prime Minister excepted of course.

But Filumena has had enough, hence the marriage by subterfuge. You already are starting to feel sympathy for a woman you feel is being used by her wealthy businessman . . . client, lover, provider - who knows. You feel he is ashamed of being seen out with her but is keeping her as his resident bit on the side come servant.

And her plan, when we discover it, is simple. She has three daughters, it was sons in the original, the dubious side benefits of her previous life, yet none know who she really is, and marriage is her key to resolving a near lifelong ambition and her need as a mother.


Sisters Gina, played by Amy White, Sophia, played by Holly Forrester and Maria played by Kimberley Marlow

And as their battle is played out, we have the skirmishes going on around them. There is Diana, played first bubbly then terrified for her safety by Eliza Harris. She is Domenic’s latest flame. As Filumena lay ill he asked Diana to come dressed as a nurse, whether as a disguise or as some sort of fantasy, who knows. Old Dom is set to marry her until a now miraculously recovered – and death bed married Filumena, gives her short shrift which, by sheer accident, brings in lawyer Nocella, played by Sandra Haynes, who would be the life and soul of any morgue. Fun she ain’t, but she still drops a rather large bombshell into Filumena’s plan.

Then we have the staff, there is Alfredo, the ineffectual friend, played by Dave Douglas. He seems to have no purpose or role apart from being someone to blame and share reminiscences. Next up is Rosalia, the maid, who will tell you her life story at the drop of a hat.

It is a lovely comic performance from Eliza Harris – twin sister of Iris by the way – who shuffles around keeping secrets from Domenico and Alfredo, ensuring they know they are secrets and her lips are sealed . . . possibly.

Yvonne Lee is Lucia, who appears to be a sort of housekeeper, old retainer, and fusses around with an air of supreme indecision whether it be a request for coffee or people at the door.

Which leaves us with the daughters, the homely, or at least married with two children, Maria, played by Kimberley Marlow, who owns two dress shops, the rather haughty Gia, played by Amy White, who manages a cocktail bar which is really a café, but a posh one mind, and seems to collect boyfriends as others collect stamps, and finally Holly Forrester as Sophia, an accountant who also writes for the local paper, who is more choosy about her men.

All three have been supported and financed by Domenico whose wonderful generosity has gone unnoticed, not least by old Dom himself, who is so rich that he has not noticed the steady evaporation of his funds over the years, a sort of angel’s share, purloined and distributed anonymously to her offspring by Filumena.

The daughters are a rarity in Filumena’s profession where abortion was seen as the accepted means of post coital birth control, but she had refused, and was determined to help her daughters through a normal life.

There is an element of a fable in de Filppo’s script in that first even the children of a whore, or indeed anyone, should be entitled to a normal life without shame or disgrace, and second, children are children, nothing more and nothing less, and all are equal.

This is given full rein in the second act when Domenico discovers one of the daughters is his, but Filomena will not reveal which one to ensure all are treated the same.

There is a flaw in the logic here, mind you, as Dom knows the date of conception, a night when he professed his love for Filumena, then gave her his usual 100 lira note, about £50 in today’s money, for services rendered, a date she wrote on that very note, a note she has kept all these years. With that information, surely merely asking the ages of the three daughters would have given him an answer, but ours is not to wonder why.

This was written in an Italy just coming out of a crippling war having fought on both sides, reluctantly with Hitler under Mussolini, then patriotically with the Allies. Perhaps it wanted to say something about forgiveness, children of wartime liasons, equality. perhaps hope for a better future as well as bringing entertainment and a smile to the face of a nation ravaged by years of conflict. A nation that wanted escapism and happy endings.

The play ends with Filumena in floods of tears, which, paradoxically, means it is a very happy ending – but you will have to buy a ticket to find out why.

Another star of the show is Malcolm Robertshaw’s elegant set, which would happily grace a professional stage. It looks Italian, it looks 1940s and it looks superb.

Tony Reynolds’ sound design is both appropriate and unobtrusive and there is clever use of old photographs on video to set the scene.

All in all this is an accomplished performance directed by Ian Appleby and led by two leads on top of their game.

It depends on both, with Domenico gradually softening and Filumena winning the sympathy of the audience, perhaps easier for a whore these days than when it was written. They manage it beautifully. It is an interesting play, not the best known perhaps, and certainly not one I have come across, but it is certainly well worth a watch. To 02-11-19.

Roger Clarke


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate