Benet Catty Productions

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (WE, 2015)

Jan 18, 2015

Playhouse, London

There was much to get the pulse racing with the news that this Broadway musical was to be the first major London opening of the year.

It's based on a Pedro Almodovar film so it's going to be smart. It's written by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane so it's going to be funny. (They brought us the brilliant Dirty Rotten Scoundrels last year which is still running.) It is a cast dominated by women - a rare thing in musicals. Better still, one of those women is Tamsin Greig who, as her army of fans (from Green Wing on TV, or Tamara Drewe on film, or Jumpy on stage) know, can do no wrong. Rarely in recent times have I more eagerly awaited a show.

So it is a great disappointment that Women on the Verge, though not without its merits, is - like the lives of many of its protagonists - a dramatic, emotional and avoidable mess.

The good news begins with the source material. As in the Oscar-winning 1988 film, Pepa (Greig) is an actress on the verge of middle age when her husband gives her a midlife crisis by dumping her via a phone call. Pepa goes to find him and in so-doing meets a wife she didn't know he had, Lucia (the ever-brilliant Haydn Gwynne). And a son with an ice queen fiancee. And meanwhile Pepa's unlikely best friend, model Candela (Anna Skellern) has found herself in love with a terrorist.
If this sounds complicated it really isn't - it's four women having similar problems dealing with them with similar mixtures of distress and rage. But by all accounts the short-lived Broadway premiere in 2010 went big on the madness and so the merits of the songs and writing became buried amidst the histrionics and scale. This pared-down "two chairs to suggest a taxi" staging on Anthony Ward's attractive but unsuitable set promises to fix all that. No such luck.

The London production by Bartlett Sher (who also directed the Broadway version) has now swung radically to the other end of the scale. The scenes are leaden, humourless, naturalistic and completely out of style with the musical tempo and the emotional momentum. The songs are pacy, rhythmic, witty and patter-heavy whereas the characters talk as if in a semi-improvised sitcom. And there is insufficient plot to sustain interest outside of these dull characters.
Worst of all is the decision to have the entirely Spanish characters speak in English accents. So three of them sound like they come from the Hampstead Garden Suburb and most of the rest, particularly the supporting female roles, have to speak and sing as if from Eastenders. Only Ricardo Afonso is really allowed to sell the numbers and the dialogue as they were intended and he does so with wit and charisma. But he seems to be in a different (and much better) show.

Gwynne shows us how it's done with her brilliant second act number Invisible, and with just the same lung capacity some may remember from the original production of City in Angels in 1993, or Billy Elliot more recently. So does Haydn Oakley, but he only has four lines to sing by himself in the entire evening. Tamsin Greig, meanwhile, is hampered by not being a singer yet having six numbers to sing.

That said, though, David Yazbek remains the most under-rated writer of musicals in the world. As he demonstrates with Scoundrels, he has tremendous - sometimes even dazzling - capacity for witty or affecting lyrics and to blend his background in rock music with the Cole Poter pizazz of Broadway show music. He has a wondrous capacity to provide internal rhymes in the form of tongue twisters. "He's at sea, so is she, so is he, so am I so let's try to unravel the journey" sings Afonso in "Tangled" (the show's best number) without breaking a sweat. Excepting Matilda, no other musicals in London provide that kind of lyrical dazzle.

If you haven't seen Tamsin Greig on stage then it's certainly worth witnessing her undeniable comic gifts. But personally I'd recommend downloading the wonderful Broadway album, skipping the show and going to Scoundrels instead: a much better representation of these writers' great gifts.

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