Vivienne Kennedy enjoys Sally Cookson’s take on the Oscar-winning Fellini film La Strada, playing at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 22 April

La Strada at Bristol Old Vic

We often think we’ve got it bad these days, but can you begin to imagine a time and place when austerity cut so deep that a mother could contemplate selling one child in order to keep the rest of her brood alive? I give you post-war Italy, the setting for Sally Cookson’s latest show, which is based on the classic Fellini film La Strada.

It’s a lively and atmospheric tale of love and loss, the story of Gelsomina, sold to strongman Zampano for 10,000 lira, and her life with him on the road, travelling through rural Italy by motorbike until they stumble upon a circus where she meets a dare-devil tightrope walker and finds herself not knowing which way to turn.

La Strada has been devised by the company with director Cookson’s long-time collaborators Benji Bower and Katie Sykes concentrating on music and design respectively and “writer in the room” Mike Akers in charge of turning thoughts and ideas into a workable script. Describing the process, Cookson says: “We set out on the journey knowing where we are coming from and where we want to get to, but without knowing the route”.

It’s a system that works well, as anyone who’s seen previous Cookson shows such as Jane Eyre, Sleeping Beauty and Treasure Island at Bristol Old Vic and Cinderella: a Fairytale and One Hundred and One Dalmatians at Tobacco Factory Theatres will know.

The story is kept simple, with elements of humour, a fair amount of pathos, a beautiful original score (played on stage by a very talented ensemble), and a smattering of circus skills (there’s a fantastic unicycle routine in Act Two). And it’s perfectly cast, with Audrey Brisson (who was also fabulous in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and The Grinning Man last year) as Gelsomina; Stuart Godwin as Zampano; and Bart Soroczynski as Il Matto (the fool).

Zampano does not treat Gelsomina well, he’s bad-tempered and abusive, beating her regularly and often abandoning her in less than salubrious places while he spends the night in the company of less than salubrious women. He breaks her spirit. And yet, I can’t completely dislike him, there’s something about Godwin’s portrayal of the character that reveals a vulnerability and you realise that he needs her, undoubtedly more than she needs him.

It’s a relatively short show, around two hours including an interval, and an easy watch although there is plenty to provoke thoughts should you be in a more reflective mood. It’s good, really good... Sally Cookson’s shows always are.

La Strada at Bristol Old Vic

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