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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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When this musical version of the Almodovar classic first premiered on Broadway in 2010 for a short-lived run of less than three months under the auspices of Lincoln Centre Theatre, it felt like a musical on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was frantically over-staged and utterly relentless.

But for its entirely revised London premiere, its writers composer David Yazbek and book writer Jeffrey Lane and director Bartlett Sher have slowed it down and stripped it back. On the one hand, it is admirable that they have taken another hard look at it. But now it feels as if the Valium that has been put into the gazpacho soup that drives some of the farce has now been slipped into the show, too.

In the process, the quirky, manic edge and energy of Almodovar’s outrageous portrait of women in various shades of emotional crisis that riotously collide is almost entirely extinguished. It is replaced with a plodding musical misfire in which a tone of desperation and panic overwhelms the show, and not for the right reasons. The characters may variously adopt those emotional positions, but the show brings little of Almodovar’s wit or grit to them to turn it into the musical farce, let alone musical force, it clearly wants to be.

It’s not for a lack of craft – composer David Yazbek’s jazz-flecked score is full of appropriate Spanish rhythms and accents, whose lyrics also contain lovely notes of yearning and feeling. But director Bartlett Sher intermittently applies a Spanish flavour through the performances, only some of which – like Ricardo Afonso’s taxi driver and Jerome Pradon’s Ivan – feel authentically European; the rest have English accents. This suppresses the authentic flavour sought.

Even more damagingly, extended book scenes have been introduced so that it sometimes feels like a play with songs, and, far from sorting out the tangled complications and multiple coincidences of the story, simply slow the pace down.

But all is not entirely lost: two ferociously good performances rise above the tangled inconsistencies of tone in both book and direction. Tamsin Greig is the magnificent centre as Pepa, a woman newly betrayed by Pradon’s Ivan; she doesn’t have the prettiest singing voice, but she compensates with the passion and feeling she brings to her songs, and the palpable pain she exhibits. The even more marvellous Haydn Gwynne, who was abandoned as Ivan’s wife 19 years earlier but is still not over it, has exactly the right Almodovarian tone of formidable strength and simultaneous loss.

Other pluses include Anthony Ward’s sleek, elegant unit set that adapts fast to changing locations, Caitlin Ward’s characterful costumes and Greg Arrowsmith’s marshalling of a band of just six players including himself at the piano to give it a full orchestral sound.

  • Playhouse Theatre, London
  • December 17-April 9, PN January 12
  • Authors: Jeffrey Lane book, David Yazbek music and lyrics, Pedro Almodovar original film
  • Director: Bartlett Sher
  • Choreographer: Ellen Kane
  • Musical director: Greg Arrowsmith
  • Design: Anthony Ward set, Caitlin Ward costume, Peter Mumford lighting, Paul Groothuis/Tom Marshall sound
  • Technical: Wyn Williams company stage manager, Richard Bullimore production manager, Deborah Andrews costume supervisor, Lisa Buckley, Mary Halliday props supervisors, Carole Hancock wigs, hair, make-up
  • Cast includes: Tamsin Greig, Haydn Gwynne, Anna Skellern, Willemijn Verkaik, Ricardo Afonso, Seline Hizli, Haydn Oakley, Jerome Pradon
  • Running time: 2hrs 40mins

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The Stage
The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.