Some prison lifers and a visiting opera troupe make highly chromatic, finally harmonious music together in "Tomorrow La Scala!", a mildly amusing comedy-drama centered on a staging of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" in which performances help give some shape to an all-which-ways script. Beyond festivals, this first feature by TV documaker Francesca Joseph is upscale small-screen fare.

Some prison lifers and a visiting opera troupe make highly chromatic, finally harmonious music together in “Tomorrow La Scala!”, a mildly amusing comedy-drama centered on a staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in which performances help give some shape to an all-which-ways script. Beyond festivals, this first feature by TV documaker Francesca Joseph is upscale small-screen fare.

Attractively shot on DV by Gerry Floyd, with the compositional care of a feature film, “La Scala!” is the first result of a deal between BBC Films and U.K. Film Council’s New Cinema Fund, to encourage innovative lowbudget production. Pic will be shown on the Beeb’s specialist channel, BBC-2, later this year.

Pumped along by Dan Jones’ music, and given bounce by the leading actors’ ensemble, film gets off to an attractive start as a small opera company of four men and four women, including its jittery head, Victoria (Jessica Stevenson), arrive at Seaworth Prison, a maximum-security joint in northwest England. They’ve come to spend five weeks, during which time they’ll mount a production of Sondheim’s musical using some of the inmates for the chorus.

Hosted by the officious Kevin (Shaun Dingwell), principal officer on the lifers’ wing, the thespians are forbidden to bring in any drugs or cell phones, wear sexy clothing, or fraternise with the cons. This immediately puts a crink in the lifestyle of the troupe’s wardrobe mistress, the saucy Janey (Samantha Spiro). “Be friendly but never become their friend,” intones Kevin, who harbors theatrical ambitions of his own and has soon finagled a role in the chorus.

Perky tone is maintained through a subsequent auditions sequence and Victoria’s early attempts to try to impose some discipline on her unruly cast. But as the film settles down, it becomes more and more clear that the rollicking comedy promised by the exclamatory title and jaunty first reel is not to be.

In fact, the script – developed by Joseph and “writing consultant” Paul Abbott after three weeks of workshopping with the actors – takes quite a while finding a consistent tone. Rehearsals of chunks of Sondheim’s score, and comic misunderstandings (such as whether Janey was seen in flagranti with one of the cons), are punctuated by sudden moments of seriousness.

One of the most jolting is a scene of one prisoner (Kevin Dignam) anally raping another (Phelim McDermott) and then being viciously brought into line by a third, Walter (Ian Burfield), who’s developed a crush on Victoria and wants her production to succeeed. Equally chilling in a quieter way is a sequence where Janey shares a joint with Jordan (Mel Raido) and is given a lesson in hard reality when he tells her how her killed his wife and her lover under the influence of crack.

For most of the middle hour, the various gears of docudrama, character comedy and social correctness grind uneasily together. Film only develops an emotional undertow near the very end, as everyone (prisoners and thesps) gathers for a surprise dinner, during which mutual understanding reigns.

Despite being shot in a real lock-up (Haverigg Prison, in Cumbria, northwest England), and using real prisoners as extras in a few scenes, pic never for a moment looks like anything other than a movie, with actors playing cons.

Among the lifers, Burfield stands out as the big lug, Walter, a genuinely threatening presence with a soft underbelly. Among the rest, Raido is believable as the former druggie, and Kulvinder Ghir fine as a basically decent man pushed too far. Veteran Dudley Sutton has a relatively small role as a wise, elder prisoner, and Dingwall pulls back from making the prison officer, Kevin, too much of a comic caricature.

In contrast, Stevenson’s twitchy perf as the uptight, ambitious Victoria is amusing but out-of-kilter with the generally naturalistic tone. The members of the troupe are far from equally developed, with most of the spotlight falling on Spiro, very good as the fast-living, hard-assed Cockney, Janey.

Vocal performances of Sondheim’s often fiendishly difficult score are tip-top, with pro singers like Richard Van Allen (as the Judge) and Steven Page (as Sweeney) among the cast. Though the whole film was inspired by Joseph’s experience of directing a production of the musical at a London prison some years ago, the script spends no time on the minutiae of rehearsals or direction

Tomorrow La Scala!

Competing / U.K.

Production

A BBC Films/Film Council presentation of a Home Movies production. (International sales: BBC Films, London.) Produced by Ruth Caleb, Christopher Collins. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Paul Trijbits. Directed, written by Francesca Joseph.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, DV-to-35mm), Gerry Floyd; editor, St. John O'Rourke; music, Dan Jones; music director, Nick Finlow; production designer, John Stevenson; art director, Netty Chapman; costume designer, Jonathan Fensom; sound (Dolby), George Richards, Ian Richardson; writing consultant, Paul Abbott; casting, Suzanne Crowley, Gilly Poole. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 22, 2002. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Jessica Stevenson, Samantha Spiro, Shaun Dingwall, Kulvinder Ghir, Karl Johnson, Dudley Sutton, Mel Raido, Daniel Evans, Ian Burfield, Lucy Bates, Bruce Byron, Kevin Dignam, Helene Kvale, Brenda Longman, Phelim McDermott, David Oyelowo, Steven Page, Richard Van Allen, Byron Watson.
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