An epic tale of love and loss on a Greek Island? No, this isn’t a Mamma Mia spin-off, this is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and while it contains fewer disco hits and sequins, this World War II romance doesn’t skimp on imagination and stagecraft.
Melly Still is a director of almost seemingly endless imagination. This is an impressively physical production, the cast constantly throw themselves around the stage, run back and forth and contort themselves into animal forms, all to bring the story to life. Maybe necessity was the mother of the many inventions here, but it all pays off. Clever stagecraft earns a lot of goodwill from an audience and brought a smile to my face on more than one occasion. It’s a shame the stage of the Pinter is smaller than that of The Rose Theatre, Kingston where the show began, the tableaux feel a little cramped here.
We begin with two storylines, Italian soldier Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) and his tale of wartime romance with fellow soldier Francesco, and with Greek daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare) and her romance with fellow villager Madras on the island of Cephalonia. These all serve as prelude and scene-setting for the main romance. While the first act is a bit slow, it gives you time to luxuriate in village life before the events of the war wreak havoc. It’s not until late in the first act that Corelli himself appears.
Alex Mugnaioni gives us a charming, handsome, carefree Corelli, who stands in sharp contrast to the war-torn setting, the confrontational Pelagia and the depressed Carlo. Even though the epic sweep of the story has been reduced, you feel his warmth cut through in a small amount of stage time. As Pelagia (and Carlo) fall in love with Corelli and their emotions thaw, the world falls apart around them.
It’s the pacing that starts to bring the play down, but it’s hard to explain without going into spoilers. The decision to hold Corelli’s entrance back until to the end of the first act throws the story’s emotional centre off-balance, we’re more invested in Carlo than we are for Corelli. The second act feels rushed, and has an extended emotional coda that cycles through a number of endings before settling down and letting us go. But this is what happens when you’re adapting a beloved novel, change too little and it doesn’t work as theatre, change too much and the fans will hate you.
Carlo’s story, central to the first act, is shunted off to the side once Corelli is on the scene, fair enough, Corelli’s name is in the title after all. He was such a focal point of the emotional story, his absence from the limelight later lost a bit of my interest, but this could just be because his gay love story was of more interest to me.
Pacing aside, there’s a lot to love here. Great performances (especially from Madison Clare as Pelagia), truly beautiful and inventive visuals and a multi-disciplined ensemble that work overtime. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a treat.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 31st August 2019.
By Chad Armstrong