The show, which just opened for a limited season at the Playhouse Theatre, is based on Pedro Almodóvar’s classic Spanish movie, set in 1980s Madrid. Pepa Marcos, an actress, has just been dumped in an answerphone message by her lover Iván, and is desperate to find him and make him change his mind. But she’s not the only one looking for Iván; his crazy ex-wife Lucía is after him too. Meanwhile, Pepa’s best friend Candela is in trouble after accidentally falling in love with a terrorist. Throw in Iván’s son and his uptight fiancée Marisa, a feminist lawyer, Paulina, and some Valium-laced gazpacho, and you have the recipe for a hilarious and insane adventure.
Tamsin Greig is undoubtedly the star of the show as Pepa, struggling to deal with her own heartbreak whilst simultaneously trying to hold everyone else together. Just as you’d expect, Greig’s comic performance is faultless, but she also beautifully portrays the depth of Pepa’s despair and her fear of an uncertain future as she contemplates middle age without Iván.
Having said that, she by no means outshines her fellow cast members, with Haydn Gwynne particularly memorable as the unhinged Lucía, and Anna Skellern, who gives a hilarious perfomance as the naïve and hysterical Candela. And it’s not all about the women, either – Ricardo Afonso is irresistible as the nameless taxi driver, who also acts as a narrator to events.
Then there’s the music. I’m always a bit sceptical when a film gets turned into a musical. Ghost, for example, was a brilliant show, but would, in my view, have been better without the musical numbers. But Women on the Verge at the Playhouse Theatre totally works. Because the action is generally so chaotic, the songs provide a pause in which the characters can express what they’re feeling without interruption – and they do it perfectly, with some truly spectacular voices among the cast. I for one would buy the soundtrack tomorrow.
As a former Spanish student, who’s lived in Madrid, I was curious to see how the setting would be translated to the London stage, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although the actors are mostly English, and make no attempt at ‘being Spanish’ (which was a relief, to be honest), you never forget where the action is taking place. The opening number, ‘Madrid’, introduces the city almost as another character, full of drama and colour and endless opportunities. The production is full of details – the music, in particular, but also extras like the pre-show announcement (‘Telefonos – no. Aplausos – sí!’) – that almost make you forget the actors are speaking English at all. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was transported to Madrid for two hours, and I didn’t really want to leave.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is exactly what the name suggests. But if you think that means you’re about to spend an evening listening to a bunch of women complain, you couldn’t be more wrong. The show is heartfelt and emotional, but also hilarious and fast-moving, and leaves you with the optimistic message that whatever might have happened today, tomorrow you can start all over again.
By Liz Dyer