This show needs work. It tries too hard to be too many things – at times a book musical, at other times an opera – in which certain characters do, frankly, take too long to die – at times a historical narrative, at other times a convoluted and increasingly implausible story about various people who may or may not have known each other but kept their identities hidden for reasons that may or may not have been revealed in the dialogue. For a musical (if that is indeed what it is) billed as being about “war and friendship”, there didn’t seem to be a lot of war going on (I don’t recall any of the characters being conscripted) and there didn’t seem to be a lot of friendship. In short, it’s a tangled and confusing mess.
The production can’t even decide on the pronunciation of its titular character, played by Celinde Schoenmaker, whose Mimma (sometimes ‘Mee-muh’, sometimes ‘Mee-mah’, sometimes ‘Mim-muh’) was so heavily accented it was difficult to decipher what she was saying. Then there were the long periods in the second half which were (presumably) sung in Italian. The production made extensive use of a projection screen for various still and moving images, though there appeared to be no budget left to use the screen to provide a translation into English. By contrast, the Royal Opera House provides surtitles “for all opera performances, including those sung in English” – even Once The Musical provided Czech to English translations.
Mind you, sound problems kept creeping up during the evening – so many lines, whatever language they were in, were lost that it must have contributed to the struggle to follow what was going on, even with Sir David Suchet narrating, as Alfredo Frassati (1868-1961), the famed Italian journalist and novelist. For a performance that had royal and diplomatic seals of approval (there are letters and messages in the programme from HRH The Prince of Wales, the Governor of Western Australia and the High Commissioner for Australia) and flanked by the BBC Concert Orchestra, one might have expected something substantially more engaging.
I still know next to nothing about Mimma herself, as there are insufficient details about her personal life. She is, in effect, used as a narrative device to push forward a story about the London-based Lorenzo (John Owen-Jones) and his friend Jacob Katz (Steve Serlin). Ada (Elena Xanthoudakis), as Mimma’s mother, had made the decision in 1938 that Mimma should live in Britain because of the rise of fascism under Mussolini. But bizarrely (in my view) it was a joint decision made with Aldo (Ashley Riches), Mimma’s brother, which kills off any remaining sense that a show called Mimma might give women the courtesy of independent thought. Later, when an up-and-coming entertainer, Sarah Parker (Louise Dearman), sticks up for Mimma, her views are callously dismissed.
It’s an all-male writing team, and it shows – the female characters do not converse and interact in a convincing way, and this is nothing to do with the performers themselves, who do remarkably well with what they are given. The writers are so narcissistic that the ‘list of music’ (thirty numbers in total), rather than stating which character(s) sing them, instead lists the writers’ names – and as they wrote it all between them, the same names appear again and again and again.
Some sound effects were so ridiculous they managed to cheapen the atrocities of the era. The pacing is so pedestrian it felt like sitting in a traffic jam in central London on a Tube strike day. At various points in the first half, random headlines were shouted to underline, far too many times, the point that the Second World War was looming. Most were unnecessary: the audience is not stupid.
There are no memorable tunes to speak of. The lights were so blinding in certain scenes that I could see audience members in the balcony using their programmes to shield their eyes from the sheer glare. A noticeable number of people did not return after the interval. ‘A Musical of War and Friendship’ could and should have been so relevant at the time of writing (during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine) but this was, I regret to report, a disappointing and underwhelming experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng