Saffron Hill, Pleasance Theatre, review: ‘A touching look back at London’s Little Italy’

Maeve� Leahy and Roseanna� Frascona in Saffron Hill. Picture: Paddy Gormley

Maeve� Leahy and Roseanna� Frascona in Saffron Hill. Picture: Paddy Gormley - Credit: Archant

Although rough in execution, this show about 19th century Italian immigrants is an interesting reflection on Clerkenwell’s cultural history, says Alex Bellotti.

Saffron Hill, a street off Clerkenwell Road, has a rich cultural heritage stretching back to the early 19th century. In 1837, it was made famous in Oliver Twist when Dickens wrote “a dirty and more wretched place he had never seen”; yet by the 1900s, it was better known as the heartland of London’s burgeoning Little Italy district.

It is this street from which writer Penny Culliford’s new show at the Pleasance takes its name. Introducing a poverty-stricken family of first-wave Italian migrants in 1872, the play then follows their descendents through World War Two, before jumping forward to the ‘60s as a third generation struggle to keep their traditional café afloat, which increasingly symbolises the last clear link to their heritage.

Indulgent autobiographical confession: my own family descends from two Italian brothers who moved to Clerkenwell around the 1840s, so I was intrigued to see if Saffron Hill would provide any clearer sense of their history. Unfortunately, the play sheds little light on why the fictional Musetti family made the move from their homeland; across all three generations, Italian culture is mostly limited to food, otherwise they seem much the same as any other British family.

What the story does show, however, is how these immigrants acclimatised to London. In the first act, Edmund Dehn endearingly portrays an exhausted father slaving as an organ grinder to support his two daughters. In the second, the lesser-known impact of Mussolini’s wartime actions is made clear as innocent British Italians are rounded up and detained by order of Winston Churchill. (While slightly over-emotive, a scene where Fed Zanni’s young café owner returns to his relatives in Saffron Hill reveals the rupturing impact this had on many families.)

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Under Anthony Shrubsall’s direction, the narrative moves smoothly. Occasionally, though, the delivery feels forced, and despite a British-trained cast, it is largely the cockney, rather than Italian, accents which fail to convice.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and touching, if under-developed, look at Clerkenwell’s cultural history that will no doubt hit home with the theatre-goers of Little Italy.

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Rating: 3/5 stars

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