The Neapolitan Alan Ayckbourn

He’s the Neapolitan Alan Ayckbourn; he’s the Neapolitan Chekhov, reckons Michael Pennington.

He’s Eduardo De Filippo, the author of The Syndicate, a dark comedy about the Italian underworld which plays Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in Mike Poulton’s new version (July 21-August 20).

It’s a piece Michael has been promoting for years - and he’s delighted that it is now coming off, not least for the reason that it is proving every bit as rewarding as he thought it would.

“It’s I play that I discovered about 20 years ago, and I have tried to get it on over the years. I had to give up, but then it raised its head again earlier this year. What happened was that we did a reading it of last autumn, and Jonathan (Church, CFT artistic director) was aware of it. Now I just hope that we do justice to it!”

“Eduardo De Filippo was a very interesting man, a very different man. He wrote and produced and directed and starred in his plays. In English terms, not even Harold Pinter managed to do all four things at the same time. Nobody since Moliere has managed to do that!

“His writing is just very very clever. It’s set not just in Naples but in a very few Naples streets. He was someone who learnt his craft at a very early age. He is a complete master of suspense and surprise and tragicomic effect in the theatre and you get all that in The Syndicate.”

Honest young Antonio Barracano stabs a brutal night-watchman to death. With the help of a ‘Godfather’ he is smuggled out of Naples to hide in New York. Convicted of the murder in his absence but safe overseas, he quickly acquires wealth and a reputation for ruthlessness.

Returning to Naples, he uses his new status to quash his conviction and is soon feared but respected throughout the city, making it his life’s work to provide a form of rough justice for the criminals of Naples who have no other access to law.

He rules the Naples underbelly with a rod of iron but when a respectable but poor young man decides to murder his father and comes to Don Antonio (Ian McKellen) for advice, the Neapolitan ‘Godfather’ emerges from the shadows to make the young man’s father an offer he can’t refuse.

Michael plays Dr Fabio, unofficial keeper of the peace in the play: “His dilemma is his desire to get out of this world after a lifetime spent dealing with some illegal medical practices. He wants to get out, but this is a world it is very difficult to get out of.”