If Pedro Almodóvar’s film of the same name hadn’t been quite such a success, I’m not certain that a musical titled Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown would attract much of a crowd. And certainly very few men, bar the particularly brave ones. Luckily, the Oscar-nominated movie of 1988 has gone down in history as a wonderfully sharp comedy that celebrates women and their myriad emotions in all their complex and eccentric glory, rather than making a mockery out of how they deal with disaster. And with a healthy dose of hysteria thrown in too, it is shamelessly funny.
After a botched attempt to put it on Broadway, this jazzed up version of Almodóvar’s tale has had a stern makeover and is now ready for London audiences, who will get one hell of a fiesta if they go to see it at the Playhouse Theatre. With such universal themes at play, I remain a little confused as to why it needs to be a fiesta at all – why it so slavishly sticks to its Spanish roots when the cast all speak and sing in their very English accents, in a story that could well be set anywhere in the world – but it is enlivening nonetheless. In the original film, the fact that these shenanigans were taking place in Eighties Madrid was absolutely key due to the cultural movement taking place at the time (following the end of the Franco regime and a newly boosted economy). But watching it these days, in a London theatre, the romantic shambles in question could easily happen to anyone around us and the overt references to Madrid (Spanish names, Spanish-style embellishments to the score, allusions to a city that you never see, and even a mute sort of guardian angel dressed as a matador) seem incongruous. That said, it’s all jolly good fun. And David Yazbek’s music is joyfully evocative. The live band on stage makes things exciting, creating a tangible sense of occasion and a brilliant dynamic with the singers.
Taking the lead is the shrewdly comic Tamsin Greig as Pepa, an actress who is dumped by her long-term lover in that most unceremonious of ways, via answer machine. The rather caddish Ivan then goes completely off the radar, driving her – quite understandably – to distraction, particularly when it transpires that she might be pregnant. Greig is an absolute wonder. Though I will own that she is one of the last people I would ever have expected to see in a musical, that part really is hers and she makes complete sense in it. Previously, I couldn’t imagine seeing her suddenly break into song whilst in one of her trademark frantic turns (you know the drill – heightened British awkwardness, hands splayed and attempting resolve with wild gesticulations, nervously stuttered words, manic blinking, panicky laughter and conversation at a rate of knots – she’s exceedingly good at it). But, actually, the way that all of that emotion pours over into song is something nearing genius. Her voice is not typical of musical theatre, and it is handsome rather than pretty but, most of all, it is refined, intelligent and expressive. Both hilarious and upsetting in equal measure, she builds a confidence in Pepa throughout the story that is utterly enthralling. This is a powerhouse of a performance.
Greig is firmly supported by Haydn Gwynne as Ivan’s estranged wife Lucia, who has spent a sizeable spell in a mental institution and is undeniably unstable. Lucia suffered the same treatment by Ivan as Pepa just has, but 20 years ago and with a baby to look after. Though she is introduced as some sort of bunny-boiling old flame, we come to appreciate – through the force and vulnerability both conveyed by Gwynne – how her life has been destroyed in front of her. It is sobering and, in turn, heartbreaking. But it is also very amusing to watch her dressing up as though in The Avengers, assuming that her Sixties clothes are still appropriate. Gwynne clearly relishes this oddly matriarchal role as the one woman who can see what is about to happen to all the others, though they might currently chide her for such supposed insanity.
Lightening the mood is Pepa’s ditzy best friend who has unwittingly got herself involved with a terrorist, the uptight fiancé of Lucia and Ivan’s son, and Ivan’s new squeeze, who also happens to be Lucia’s lawyer. This tangled romantic web is narrated by the mighty voice of Ricardo Afonso, and Holly James has a charismatic cameo as the aforementioned matador – her steady gaze on the audience is piercing and curious.
This production is lively, cheeky and hugely entertaining, and the songs will be in your head for weeks afterwards. It turns out that the nervous breakdowns on which this group of women are on the verge could happen to any of us. And they are not a mad bunch of man-hating spinsters but clever, loving and perceptive individuals, each with their own source of strength. This show doesn’t cosset or defend them, but it does champion their plights with a wickedly honest sense of humour.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown runs at the Playhouse Theatre until Saturday 9th May 2015. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.