Last week Phil was due to see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but it seemed the show itself was having a breakdown of its own.
He’s already reported about turning up at the Playhouse theatre a week last Monday to find it cancelled as three, yes, three of the leads were off sick. A friend who had been the Saturday before reported that apparently the director had come on stage before the performance to apologise for the cast feeling ‘tired and under the weather’. Surely not a wise move. If you’ve forked out for a ticket you don’t really want to know this. What were they hoping for a sympathy vote?
All were present on Tuesday, though they’d had the official opening and an after-show party the night before yet no one appeared tired. With the frenetic goings on in this musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar‘s farcical 1988 film tiredness would not sit too happily with the madness they have to contend with.
If you’ve seen the overwrought film (which Phil, despite being an Almodóvar fan, never warmed to) you’ll know it’s a convoluted, hysterical farce relying heavily on coincidence. In Bartlett Sher‘s reworked, scaled-down production of the musical flop he directed on Broadway four years ago, Tamsin Greig plays Pepa a voice-over artist dumped by her lover Ivan (Jérôme Pradon) by answerphone message (hard to do it by text in 1987). She attempts to lure him back to her apartment and keep him for the night by spiking the gazpacho with Valium.
Bring on an assorted rag bag of eccentrics, Pepa’s needy and suicidal friend (Anna Skellern) with a Shiite terrorist boyfriend, Ivan’s scarily bonkers wife Lucia (Haydn Gwynne) and her son (by Ivan) Carlos (Haydn Oakley) and Carlos’ Croydon facelifted girlfriend Marisa (Seline Hizli). Oh and there’s a lady matador whose main purpose is to wheel on a blackboard revealing which location we’re in when the the set doesn’t feel up to it. Which of these will drink the gazpacho? You sure as hell know it won’t be Ivan.
Ah, the gazpacho! Phil was thrilled to see Greig making it live on stage but he was less thrilled with her singing voice. Perhaps they should bring in Marni Nixon to dub her? She has the acting chops to deliver a number, but she’s not able to deliver the trickier notes, one of which suggested she was channelling Dame Edna. But we must not shoot the messenger, the songs (David Yazbek) aren’t always up to much and Phil, like most people, has so much goodwill towards Greig she’s forgiven. Almost.
A messy song ‘Tangled’ in Act 2 was all over the place, but not nearly as bad as the one just before the interval which must be a contender for one of the worst Act 1 closing numbers Phil’s ever seen.
Anthony Ward’s white set set is sleekly elegant, the whole effect with an upper tier and a port-holed door suggested a deco thirties liner, which may be a metaphor for the characters being all at sea. The show certainly is.
It’s not all bad. Jeffrey Lane‘s book contains the occasional chucklesome moment. Gwynne is involved in a funny sight gag involving her and a Picasso portrait and struts around elegantly in a series of camply stunning ‘A’ line coats and frocks managing to be both touching and endearingly nutty. Her brilliant rendition of a non-song in Act 2 almost leads you to believe it’s a showstopper (an Olivier nomination must be on the cards). Greig holds the show together; no one does nervy vexation as charmingly as she does. Ricardo Afonso is splendid as a guitar strumming master of ceremonies and amusing taxi-driver-cum-confidante to Pepa.
But Phil’s favourite moment was the pre-show announcement in Spanish telling you not to use your mobile or take photographs (presumably so Bianca Jagger might understand). Phil chuckled at the expression “No textos” misleading him to believe he was in for a really jolly time.
The biggest problem is a feeling of flatness; it wants to be both a farce and a musical. The songs slow down the frenetic shenanigans and the sometimes sombre musical numbers, in their attempts to add emotional depth – despite occasional agreeable Latino rhythms and the odd spark in the lyrics – don’t have enough pizzazz or variation to warrant the intrusion. The musical version of the farce Lend Me A Tenor suffered similar problems.
For the record, the audience, who applauded politely throughout and didn’t seem to be laughing that much, seemed wildly enthusiastic at the end. Perhaps they’d been on the gazpacho too and the effect was beginning to wear off by the curtain call?
If you’re still keen to see it, Phil recommends the £20 dayseats (available in person at the box office from 10am), which in his case put him in £75 Premium Seating. You really wouldn’t want to pay any more than that for a Woman on the Verge of Being Able to Sing.