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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Playhouse Theatre


  Haydn Gwynne and Tamsin Greig Ph: Alastair Muir

In its first incarnation, back in 2010, this musical adaptation of Pedro Almdóvar's hit movie woefully flopped in New York. Yet redrafted and stylishly redesigned for its West End premiere, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown feels as if it’s more than on the road to recovery. Bartlett Sher's production – with a book by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Jeffrey Lane and jazz- and mambo-influenced songs by David Yazbek – is full of zing.
That is true to the spirit of Almodóvar's heroine Pepa, too. Here played with consummate timing and tragicomic skill by Tamsin Greig, this middle-aged dubbing artist picks herself up off the floor after being dumped by her lover, Ivan (a compulsively philandering Jérôme Pradon). Ultimately, this wacky saga pulls back from suggesting forsaken females turn into desperate nutters, morphing instead into a near-feminist celebration of their resilience.  
Sher's production is both tightly drilled and teasingly dreamlike, played out in a curvaceous, high, white chamber that glows acid green, hot pink and azure when Pepa has popped too much valium (with Peter Mumford brilliantly lighting Anthony Ward’s set).
Greig almost dances out her hallucinatory opening sequence, spun around by a whirling crowd. Caitlin Ward’s costumes have elements of the 60s and well as 80s retro, with a trace of psychedelic cartoon about them but really more designer chic. Furnishings whizz in and out on wheels, and telephones drop from the sky, on boinging wires, like surreal little bungee jumpers.
Pepa soon finds herself in a farcical tangle, with Ivan’s wife Lucia (Haydn Gwynne) on a vengeful warpath, and with a ditzy friend (Anna Skellern) being tracked down by the police because she has slept with a terrorist. That last ingredient doesn’t seem very funny in the current climate, and Skeller gives a shrill performance. Her manic patter song is wearying. Gwynne’s courtroom scene is, meanwhile, prolix.
But her monstrously domineering Lucia is very droll, looking like a cross between Jackie Kennedy and the Wicked Witch of the West in an Alice band. Her number "Invisible" – about women’s experience of ageing – is an extraordinary, mournful, mellifluous showstopper. And Greig proves she can sing very impressively, too, with careful technical polish but also emotion. Her torch songs hover between Berlin cabaret, with a hard nasal edge, and ululations invoking Spanish folk ballads.
Haydn Oakley also deserves a mention as Ivan’s naïve, sweet-natured son. And Ricardo Afonso is storming as the taxi driver-cum-narrator who launches into tongue-in-cheek flamenco, winking at the audience with a guitar slung over his shoulder.
All in all, this is a blast.
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London. She also writes for and is an associate professor at the University of Reading.


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