Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown** (Playhouse Theatre)

Posted: January 12, 2015 in Theatre

women on the vergeIt is hard to believe that it has taken so long for one of the films of Pedro Almodovar to be turned into a musical, but even harder to believe that the film chosen would be Women on the Verge…. At his best, the Spanish writer/director is famed for colourful larger-than-life characters and mildly subversive stories which celebrate human diversity and the richness of life; yet, in this early (1988) film, there are only hints of those distinctive qualities, as we follow Pepa (mistress) and Lucia (wife), who go into tailspins when the lecherous Ivan dumps them both in favour of Lucia’s divorce lawyer. The jittery ladies are joined by Pepa’s friend Candela, suicidal in the wake of a relationship with a Jihadist, but finding consolation in Ivan’s son. This adaptation arrives (apparently revised extensively)  after a two-month run on Broadway in 2011/12. Jeffrey Lane’s book follows Almodovar’s screenplay fairly closely, but what had come across on screen as a wafer thin yet enjoyable screwball comedy translates to the stage as a rather conventional farce. Bartlett Sher’s production stops short of a complete breakdown, but it suffers from an identity crisis, wavering between the laugh-out-loud humour of the film and a semi-serious reflection on modern relationships. The main problem is that David Yazbek’s songs do not always fit in comfortably with the material. Bright up-tempo numbers such as the opening Madrid have a latin feel and work well, but doleful ballads often interrupt the flow and rhythm of the comedy. As a result, by the time that Pepa prepares a spiked jug of gazpacho which accidentally puts half the characters to sleep, the show may have worked the same trick on many in the audience. Efforts are made to create a Spanish ambience – posters decorating the foyer, garish fluorescent lighting (presumably intended to suggest Madrid chic in Pepa’s penthouse apartment), a dancer wearing a matador costume, touches of mambo and flamenco, etc – but they come to little when not followed through in all the performances. Tamsin Greig (Pepa), Haydn Gwynne (Lucia) and Jerome Pradon (Ivan) can just about pass as Spanish, but Anna Skellern’s Candela and several of the minor characters seem as if they could have strayed in from Made in Dagenham. The star of this production is, undoubtedly, Ricardo Afonso (who is Portuguese) as a taxi driver, a role expanded from the film to become a sort of wandering minstrel and narrator. He starts the second half with My Crazy Heart, sending it up mercilessly and he leads the company in what is by far the show’s best number, Tangled – choreographed imaginatively and summing up cleverly what the show is all about, it is a highpoint, but it does not arrive until midway through the second half. Unfortunately, there is very little else as memorable in Yazbek’s music and lyrics or Ellen Kane’s dance routines. Some nervy ladies of a certain age often decide that they “need work” and this is a show which could benefit from following their example.

Performance date: 12 January 2015

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