Mimma was a waste of David Suchet’s talents – and our anti-war sympathies

David Suchet as Alfredo Frassati in Mimma - Danny Kaan
David Suchet as Alfredo Frassati in Mimma - Danny Kaan

It does not require a detective of the international stature of Hercule Poirot to conclude that this is a timely week for a “new musical of war and friendship”. As Russia continues its merciless assault on Ukraine, any work that celebrates amity triumphing over hostility is well-meaning and to be applauded. Unfortunately, even a lesser sleuth would not take long to work out that an actor of the calibre of David Suchet, Poirot’s greatest on-screen representative, is wasted in this particular show.

Mercifully for Suchet, he was participating in a one-off, semi-staged concert performance of Mimma, by Australian newcomers Ron Siemiginowski (composer) and Giles Watson (librettist); if he has any sense, he will not be back for more, should the opportunity arise. (If anyone in the theatrical world has sense, the opportunity will not.)

With the broadest of brushstrokes and a sketchy and centrifugal plot, Siemiginowski and Watson sweep us through Second World War-ravaged Europe. The eponymous heroine (fiercely portrayed by Celinde Schoenmaker) is a young Italian woman who puts up anti-Fascist posters in her hometown of Turin (albeit two long hours of action afford us no further insight into her life or character). With Mussolini’s muscle-men in control, this is a risky strategy, and it leads to her being sent to her uncle Lorenzo (John Owen-Jones) in London. Uncle Lorenzo runs a nightclub, where Sarah (Louise Dearman) sings and swiftly befriends Mimma – who, for reasons that remain unclear, takes copious notes.

Suchet, disappointingly underused (though perhaps not for him), was both the narrator and Mimma’s grandfather. He didn’t sing, but instead offered up snippets of plot in a sonorous Italian accent, all while seated at a desk. Dearman and Schoenmaker, meanwhile, went at their roles with commendable conviction and powerful voices, and showed no signs of flagging, even though a lot of the numbers sounded wearyingly similar.

Yet the general lack of narrative depth made it almost impossible to become emotionally involved in Mimma’s unfolding drama, aside from the residual sympathy we feel at all tales of suffering in war. The combination of the skeletal scene-setting and the decibels of the orchestra also meant that the family details remained hazy. (There was, I think, an aunt in Poland, but quiz me not on the specifics.) For this was no small-scale endeavour: a large group of performers, nimbly directed by Luke Fredericks, was accompanied by the assembled might of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by orchestrator Richard Balcombe. The swirling sound was luscious, yet in the first half, errant miking rendered the actors’ words all but incomprehensible. At one point, Suchet fought a losing battle to make himself heard over the drums.

Mimma’s score is a peculiar mixture of swooping operatic aria, intermingled English and Italian, and perky pastiches of wartime popular music. Not many shows include jaunty rhyming around the word “Czechoslovakia”, or references to “Messerschmitts being blown to bits / By Spitfires and Hurricanes”. Then again, not many shows wrap up their heroine’s fate with a couple of lines of exposition and the unearned deployment of disturbing projected images. Talking of images, a selection of closing pictures portrayed bombed-out cities and refugees crossing borders. There goes history, repeating itself again.

No further performances. Info: cadoganhall.com