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Women On the Verge has tried again – and failed better

A scene from Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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If at first you don’t succeed, goes the old saying, try, try, try again. But I prefer Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Theatre, of course, is not an exact science. Who knows what ingredients are needed for success? No one could have anticipated, for instance, that the 1975 musical Chicago, which had a respectable run of just over two years when it first premiered, would become Broadway’s longest-ever running American musical in its revival that opened in 1996 – and is still running now, only eclipsed by The Phantom of the Opera in the longest runs of all time?

Chicago had always been a great show, of course, but it took the gleaming, stripped-down simplicity of the concert stage (where this production originated, as part of New York’s annual Encores! Season at City Center) to finally reveal it to the masses.

Keeping it simpler is often best. Just last week it was announced that The Color Purple, a musical that ran for just over two years in its original Broadway run in 2005, is returning there next year, in a transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s 2013 production. The Menier also previously sent its smaller-scale reimaginings of Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music and La Cage Aux Folles to Broadway, too.

[pullquote]The reviews were better in London than on Broadway[/pullquote]

Those were accomplished with new creative teams at the helm. But this week, Bartlett Sher – who directed the original short-lived 2010 Broadway production of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – returned to restage its London premiere in an entirely rewritten and reconceived production that included new designs and new choreography.

It has, on the whole, received far better reviews in London than it did for its Broadway premiere. Most of my critical colleagues were coming to it entirely fresh and only reviewing what was in front of them, and not comparing or contrasting with what had gone before.

I, however, had seen it in New York – twice – and as I said in my concluding verdict of my review for The Stage, “A fast Broadway flop is entirely remade for the West End, but introduces new problems instead of solving them.”

I’m not saying that this makes my review more authoritative in any way, just that I was able to take a longer view. And as much as I applauded its creators for taking another hard look at it, my own view is that they failed again. Failed better, perhaps, but failed nonetheless.

And even if critics hadn’t seen the Broadway original, Almodovar’s film is forever there, probably impossible to improve. But there are plenty of things to make worse. My guest for the opening was Simon Edge, a former colleague from the Daily Express, who emailed me afterwards with an observant point that no one else seems to have picked up:

My favourite worst bit was the beginning of the second act, where the woman who looked like a latecomer walking across the front of the stalls turned out to be the member of the cast who was meant to be throwing herself over the balcony.

Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has tried again and – in my opinion – failed again. But it’s failed better. Maybe there’s hope for this musical yet.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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