Review: Tutto Bene Mamma, The Print Room
Published in The Telegraph, 20.06.2013
Theatre in total darkness is nothing new. Tom Morris programmed a season of such work 15 years ago at the Battersea Arts Centre. The innovative company Sound&Fury, in turn, have toyed with sensory deprivation ever since, staging a surround-sound, unseen Illiad and, two years ago, Going Dark, about the onset of blindness.
So there’s no excuse for bungling the form as director Ewan Marshall manages with this one-act oddity from Italy, Tutto Bene, Mamma? (trans: “Are you OK, Mum?”). Adapted by Royal Court regular April de Angelis (Jumpy), Gloria Mina’s play relies on darkness to get away with its unstageable core components: a long-dead, decaying body and young child as protagonist. Benny Nilsen’s sound-design ought to carry proceedings. Instead it fatally undermines them.
Primo returns from primary school to find his mother lying on the floor. The next morning, she’s still there, sleeping with her eyes open. With no adult around, he starts fending for himself: microwaving pizzas, cutting his own hair and feeding his new pet squirrel, Quick.
His grandmother and schoolteacher phone, but nobody comes round. Flies start to gather. Liquid leaks from the body. Still Primo nags his mum to wake up, to stop playing.
It’s well acted too: Georgia Groome, 21, catches the confused inflections of a five-year-old boy; Laura Donnelly is lyrically tender as his mother.
However, the further it moves from normality, the more Nilsen’s rudimentary soundscape buckles. Swarming flies sound like a busy Wetherspoons. Another effect resembles a game of underwater squash. Poor speaker positioning means the street sounds below — actually recorded in Naples — come from above, while Primo’s squirrel seems able to fly.
It’s disorientating for all the wrong reasons. Marshall’s use of scent is just as unthinking: burnt toast stands in for overdone cake and you’ll catch a whiff of cooked pizza, but never of festering corpse. Funny that.
Demanding such detail sounds overzealous, but with your senses pricked by darkness, small oversights sink the fiction entirely; and what should give you goose bumps, leaves you rolling your eyes instead.
Photograph: The Print Room