I’ve not seen Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 movie “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and although friends had told me how great it was I went to London’s Playhouse Theatre to see the musical with no real idea about the show at all.
The story revolves around Pepa (Tamsin Greig), her lover Ivan (Jerome Pradon), his wife Lucia (Haydn Gwynne), son Carlos (Haydn Oakley) along with future daughter-in-law Marisa (Seline Hizli) and Pepa’s best friend, the shallow but very pretty model, Candela (Anna Skellern). In this mix we have a feminist lawyer with a secret Paulina (Willemijn Verkaik) and an all-knowing narrator come taxi-driver (Ricardo Afonso). Over the course of two days in 1987 the lives of these 8 characters come together in superb style.
Pepa is an actress and singer whose world comes crashing down around her ears when she plays back a phone message from Ivan telling her their relationship is over. Distraught, she tries in vain to find Ivan to convince him not to leave her. At the same time, Ivan’s mentally unstable (to say the least) ex-wife Lucia is plotting with her lawyer Paulina to sue Ivan for his 20 years disinterest of her whilst simultaneously over-mothering her son Carlos and treating his fiance Marisa as if she were her maid. Let’s not forget self-obsessed, easily distracted by pretty things, model Candela, who has realised her current boyfriend (well he’s been with her 3 days) Malik (Nuno Queimado) may not be quite the catch she thought he was. Through a series of unlinked events, Carlos, Marisa and Candela end up meeting at Pepa’s apartment where histrionics, Gazpacho and cupid’s arrows are added to the action causing even more confusion and self-questioning. As if poor old Pepa hadn’t got enough to deal with, life throw even more at her including a constantly praying Concierge, revelations about secret trysts, mad-wives with guns, grenade toting terrorists, potentially closeted policemen, a handsome telephone repair man and a taxi-driver who is always there when she needs him. There’s a lot to cover and the audience will be wondering how it all ends. Will Ivan get his comeuppance? Will Lucia sort her mind out? Will Carlos and Marisa live happily ever after? Will Candela find her missing shoe? and will Pepa get her island? Only one way to find out.
In many respects, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” reminded me of one of the old Whitehall farces – with less vicars and elderly spinsters in pearls – the pace was so fast. But, and it’s an important point, the show never ran away with itself, meaning that it was pretty easy to follow the various plots as they unfolded before us. Jeffrey Lane has taken the original “Women on the Verge…” film and produced an excellent stage version with David Yazbek’s music and lyrics really enhancing the complicated story. The 14 songs were nicely placed throughout the show to add to the narrative and some such as ‘Lovesick’, ‘Model Behaviour’, ‘On the verge’ and ‘Invisible’ were really stand-out numbers for me. Director Bartlett Sher and Set Designer Anthony Ward have made fabulous use of the playhouse’s stage – I really would love to have an apartment like Pepa’s – and having the band under Musical Director Greg Arrowsmith, sitting above the main part of the stage is a masterly stroke enabling the audience to be close to and really drawn in to Pepa’s world.
Turning to the acting, all of the lead actors are really fantastic as are the rest of the cast – often on stage observing and helping to move the action along, but it is the two leading ladies that really dominate the show. Tamsin Greig apparently had a lot of qualms about doing the show – her first musical. Well, they were completely unfounded. Her performance was sublime and totally believable, and her singing voice excellent. I’m hoping she moves on to other musicals when this finishes its run. Tamsin’s Pepa is wonderful as she moves from a neurotic panicky ‘girl’ to self-assured, strong, resilient woman as she deals with her own issues and those of her friends – particularly the really demanding Candela – and acquaintances around her. Equally, Haydn Gwynne’s portrayal of Lucia is superb – this is one lady I would not like to get on the wrong side of. Brilliantly played without ever going over the top, Lucia is elegant, charming when she needs to be but even without being told she spent some time in a ‘special’ hospital, it is obvious that beneath the surface this woman is a few tomatoes short of full gazpacho.
“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” may have a clunky title – that is a nightmare to keep typing – but is a fantastic show from start to finish. Whether you have seen the film or not, I really would recommend you spend a couple of hours with the ladies, not only because it is awesome but also to re-assure you that no matter what happens in your life it will never be as complicated as Pepa’s.
Review by Terry Eastham
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Overview
Hailed as ‘the West End’s boldest and most talked about new musical’ (The Guardian) this smart new musical comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, has opened to critical acclaim from the London Critics.
On the streets of Madrid, a city pulsing with art, industry, and passion, Pepa’s world is unravelling. Her lover leaves her. And then she meets his wife. And his son. And his new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Pepa’s best friend is tangled up in her own romantic crisis with a suspected criminal, leaving Pepa with only the taxi driver to help navigate the Gran Vía ahead.
Starring Olivier Award-winning actress Tamsin Greig (Episodes, Green Wing, Jumpy, God of Carnage), Haydn Gwynne (The Audience, Billy Elliot), Jérôme Pradon (Les Miserables, Pacific Overtures) Anna Skellern (BBC’s The Interceptor) and Willemijn Verkaik (Wicked), the colour and chaos of Pepa’s Madrid will light up London.
This hilarious and heartfelt musical based on Pedro Almodóvar’s award-winning trailblazing film celebrates women centre stage at the Playhouse Theatre now. Book your taxi now.
Now booking until 22 August.
Please note that Tamsin Greig will not be performing at the following performances: 6 – 11 April, 25 & 26 May.
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Previews from 17th December 2014
Opened 12th January 2015
Booking to 22nd August 2015
Tuesday 31st March 2015