Women On The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown
Based on Pedro Almodovar’s film
Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Playhouse Theatre, London
Saturday 17th January 2015, 7.30 pm
Tamsin Greig as Pepa
Haydn Gwynne as Lucia, Ivan’s ex-wife
Jerome Pradon as Ivan, Pepa’s lover
Anna Skellern as Candela, a model, Pepa’s best friend
Willemijn Verkaik as Paulina, the lawyer
Ricardo Alfonso as the taxi driver
Seline Hizli as Marisa
Haydn Oakley as Carlos, Ivan’s son
Holly James as the Matador
Marianne Benedic as Hair Stylist
Sarah Moyle as Concierge
Rebecca McKinnis as Christina
Michael Matus as Hector / Magistrate
Dale Rapley as Doctor / Police Inspector
Nudo Queimodo as Malik
Alistair Natkiel as Telephone repairman / Ambite
L to R: Marisa, Lucia, Pepa, Candela, Paulina
London theatre is replete with film spin-offs … Shakespeare in Love, Once, The Commitments, Made in Dagenham, and now Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, from Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film. It is a revamp, or rewrite of a version that bombed on Broadway in 2010. Our motivation for tickets was Tamsin Greig, as star of Episodes, our favourite TV comedy of the last decade. We had seen her co-star, Stephen Mangan twice, in Birthday and in Jeeves & Wooster (both linked).
They’d done the Playhouse Theatre up to match the Spanish mood, with DAMAS and CABALLEROS on the toilets, and CAVA and SANGRIA above the bars.
The plot centres on Pepa (Tamsin Greig), an actress (well-known enough for taxi drivers to recognize her). She has been having an affair with fellow actor Ivan, but he has left her apartment and she can’t get in touch with him. In fact he’s left her to nip off to Ibiza for the weekend for a bit of philandering with Paulina, a feminist lawyer. Paulina is also representing his ex-wife, Lucia (a towering performance by Haydn Gwynne). Lucia has spent years in a mental hospital after being dumped by Ivan 19 years earlier, but is out and bent on vengeance. Pepa’s best friend, Candela, is a model. She has been shacked up for three days with Malik, a terrorist, and just realized what he is.
Malik has been noted as an uncomfortably unfunny role in this week of all weeks. But Spain had serious and bloody terrorist problems in the 80s from Basque separatists, so much so that it would not have been very different in impact then. I spoke at a Madrid TESOL conference where a bus full of Guardia Civil officers had been blown up the day before, and because it was an international conference right by the scene, I spoke in a lecture theatre with two gun-carrying police officers in the room with me, one facing me at the door, one facing the audience. I can assure you that the Guardia Civil didn’t carry pistols, as the police do in this play, they had proper automatic weapons. You become very aware that only three people in the room are standing, you’re one of them, and the other two are heavily-armed. It was in the air. On another trip, driving to Bilbao, we saw a police car’s blue lights behind us. The driver said if they stopped us, just raise your hands in the air. There had been so many police officers killed, they were trigger happy. So it can be 1987, but topical.
Candela is another powerful and hilarious role (Anne Skellern). She knows about Malik’s role and is terrified herself. The farcical complication is Ivan’s son, Carlos and his girlfriend Marisa. They’re flat hunting, have picked up Pepa’s business card (which she left at Lucia’s flat), and come to view the flat thinking it’s on the market. Pepa had no idea that Ivan had a son. Much of the action takes place in Pepa’s flat, but they get out and about to other locations smoothly and quickly. Add in Pepa’s gazpacho soup laced with “valium” as a kind of Kool-Aid Acid Test. It sends Marisa off to sleep where she has an orgasm, and causes the anti-terrorist police to cuddle up in love.
Pepa is mixing up the medicine (with the gazpacho)
The set and costumes are in bright hard colours. We worked on an 80 sketch video series for Spain, and the Spanish company asked us to look at Spanish soap operas and sitcoms, as they wanted to avoid the dingy murky shades then prevalent in Britain. This production is well aware of the Spanish taste for strong colours: Pepa in bright red, Candela in turquoise, then lime green, Marisa with yellow tights, Lucia in black or solid pink, Carlos in bright blue trousers and yellow shirt. Only Ivan, the centre of all this female attention, is dressed in dull grey. I think it was deliberate contrast to the brightness of the women, but what it served to do it was to remove his impact as a charismatic ladykiller. As well as grey, it was ill-fitting and made him look like a misplaced lowly civil servant. He’s supposed to be an actor. More flair needed. Confusingly, Michael Billington in The Guardian says Ivan was her ‘lawyer lover’. That’s what costume does even to the best reviewers. The play starts with a film dubbing session where Pepa has to act with Ivan’s recorded speaking and singing voice. I can’t recall the film at all, so maybe he’s a lawyer who moonlights with acting, but we never got that “lawyer” impression here at all.
The set, and the way it’s lit in rainbow shades is terrific. The costumes however are somewhat unsure whether they’re referencing the 60s, 70s or 80s (it’s set, like the film, in Madrid in 1987), but the strength of colours is what’s important rather than accurate historical reference. Madrid’s 80s, post Franco, was its equivalent of London’s Swinging Sixties, so that 60s style fits. As the programme notes, pornography, soft drugs and gay rights exploded. I remember going for a pre-theatre meal in a large restaurant in the old city, and realizing halfway through my starter that filmed oral sex was being projected on the wall in front of me (thank goodness I hadn’t ordered the aubergine), and that the next table was perfuming the air with marijuana smoke.
The stage setting, and changing locations and furniture was first rate, fluid, everyone involved, constantly shifting. The set can be empty one minute, and full of furniture the next. The back wall can be plain white flats, or open to reveal a balcony or sky. The phone box (Telefono) drops from the sky when needed. At the start of Act 2, there was a balcony at the front, masking lots of the stage from the stalls, but it was only there a couple of minutes (for the taxi driver’s song, and Candela’s fall) and then slid back out of sight. Five stars for set design and stage management.
Intrinsically, it’s more an extended situation than a story. It has strong farce elements, and like good farces is unafraid to make a knowing nod to this. Tamsin Greig as Pepa, the actress, says ‘This is the classic Act One farce moment …’ and later ‘Have you seen my Feydau?’ (and of course someone starts looking for it … if it were British it would be an “Ooh!” moment but they eschew that.) Because of this characterization, while well-done, is unchanged. People’s roles are fixed from the beginning.
The best thing about the show is the line-up of strong funny female roles. All are powerfully done. We both thought Carlos (the son) outstanding too, though the Telegraph review compared him sniffily to Antonio Banderas in the film. Unfair and unrealistic statement. He played the role perfectly, and was also a great singer. Holly James, as the Matador, was also the dance captain and outstanding in a mainly non-speaking minor role.
In some ways, the introduction of music slows the farce. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the music. According to the programme, it’s a six piece band, but it sounded like keyboards (with synth bass and drums) plus guitar to me. They were just out of our sight, and as we were leaving I realized it was indeed a real drummer- he got to stretch on the play-out instrumental. You expect a musical to have three or four memorable tunes, then seven or eight sung narrative. The sung narrative came across far more because the composer seemed to avoid choruses with hooks. There were moments when two or three of the cast were singing together that sounded fabulous, and every one on stage acquitted themselves as first rate stage singers. It’s a surprise to see that the principal actors could all have specialized in musicals for their careers. Loved the singers, but thought the arrangements dull, and all but a couple of the songs merely average. Other reviews mentioned the Hispanic feel. Not Hispanic enough for me. Only two short bits of weak flamenco clapping, not enough acoustic guitar. Perhaps Hispanic X-Factor in style rather than the exciting rhythms of Spain. Though as it’s 80s, maybe I’m wrong to hanker after an older (and better) style. I will say that in Madrid’s 80s heyday, I saw the flamenco Carmen with Paco de Lucia on guitar, and at the beginning, when I saw the plain set and circle of chairs for waiting actors at the back, I was led to expectations that were unrealistically high for the music.
Lucia threatens Pepa (Carlos, Candela and policemen are asleep)
Pluses are the comedy acting, fluid direction, the magnificent set. Weaknesses are music, and to a degree the plot. Three stars for the production, two for the music.
You go in ten minutes before the start. You read the programme. Except you don’t read the programme at all, because interesting bits are printed in black on dark turquoise or black on red, so totally impossible to read in the dim light in the stalls. You could just read the bits on dark pink and yellow. A very dumb design decision on the programme It was like OZ and IT in the late 60s – illegible in poor light. Which a theatre has before the play starts.