To help celebrate the festive season, Mrs Chrisparkle and I often like to go to London to see a show or two – well, it makes a change to get out occasionally. This time we decided to go the whole hog and stayed over for three nights, seeing two shows on the Saturday and two shows on the Monday. On the Sabbath Day, we rested. When I was planning which shows we should book, I noticed that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown would be previewing during our stay. I don’t normally do previews, as I like to be sure I’m seeing the final version. Still, the potential for phrases like “hot ticket” and “smash hit” kept tickling my brain, as well as the very attractive sounding “Tamsin Greig” – Mrs C and I love her in the TV series Episodes – so the decision was made; that would be our Saturday matinee choice.
Pepa is a voice-dubbing actress of reasonable success who has been having an affair with Ivan for some time, only to be dumped by him at the start of the show. As she tries to put back together the shattered pieces of her life, she has to cope with demands of her career, her friends, and selling her flat; which includes an attempted suicide, a Shiite terrorist, a court case and the discovery that she’s pregnant. Just any old 48 hours really. And that, in a nutshell, is the show.
It is of course an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s film of the same name. He is a Big Name in cinema. If you are a regular to my blog – for which thanks, and Happy New Year, gentle reader – you’ve probably guessed that neither of us have seen any of his films. I appreciate that it’s the sin of omission; occasionally we can be quite a sinful couple. But I know of many people who think his work is outstanding, so I was looking forward to a musical representation of some feisty Spanish women chucking their weight around in 1980s Madrid.
I’m not sure that’s what I got. Maybe in the minor roles; I enjoyed the smug bitchiness of Rebecca McKinnis’ Christina, and Holly James’ Matador is certainly feisty – albeit completely surreal and strangely detached from the rest of the action. One of the best performances is from Seline Hizli as Marisa, the virgin enamorata of Pepa’s lover’s son Carlos, largely because the character is quite well fleshed out, and you kind of get a sense of what makes her tick. I wouldn’t describe her as feisty – particularly as she has to spend a lot of the show fast asleep after an accidental Valium overdose – but she’s quite wise and clear thinking.
However, you can’t describe the other characters that way. Tamsin Greig does a good line in portraying Pepa’s brave “chin-up” attitude, and frequently blesses us with that perplexed/stunned/slightly vacant look that she does so well on TV; but for the most part the character is in the eye of the storm and just reacts to what goes on around her. Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia – Pepa’s lover’s ex-lover, suing him for abandoning her – is a rather miserable character, excruciatingly dominant over her son and his girlfriend, painfully unable to handle the mental stresses of her existence and wallowing in self-pity at every opportunity. Even more unattractive a character is Anna Skellern’s Candela – Pepa’s model friend – an egocentric spoilt show-off brat who cares not one jot for the plights of anyone else but herself, and, rather than her being funny, to me the character just came over as immensely tedious.
In fact, nearly all the characters come across as either unpleasant or very flimsily written which is, I think, why the show as a whole said absolutely nothing to me. We didn’t actively hate it, that would have implied a strong enough reaction; we just didn’t actively enjoy it, or even participate in it. It committed the sin of being boring – really, very boring. I desperately wanted to enjoy it, but there was nothing to grab hold of in the story or the presentation to concentrate on and cherish. The whole thing looks delightfully stylised, with its bold coloured lighting, but that masks both a clinically plain set and a remarkably empty sense of drama. You can’t call it a triumph of style over substance, because that would require some sense of triumph.
There were a few good lines, and occasional comic moments, but there were even more sequences where you just thought, what the hell is going on, this is just ridiculous. If it was trying to be quirky and clever, it failed. Musically, it has a few curiously entertaining – if downbeat and introspective – tunes, but for the most part the songs merely punctuate the show rather than move the plot forward. To be fair, it all brightens up enormously just after the interval, with the first three songs and scenes seemingly written by a completely different person, and you cross fingers that they just might turn it around and rescue it; but then you get the horrendously boring scene and song where Lucia is pleading to the court, at which point I switched off and couldn’t care less anymore. This had the effect of making the “climax” (I use the word ill-advisedly) a long, drawn-out, bizarre sequence of non-events that somehow peter out into a conclusion. I don’t know if the terrorist sub-plot is meant to have a sense of danger or excitement, or surreal ludicrousness even; but to me it came over as pathetically lame. There’s also the scene where Marisa appears to say she’s no longer a virgin. We couldn’t work out if she’d had some extraordinary mental vision or if she’d been light-heartedly raped. Either way, we didn’t think it was either believable or palatable.
The performances range from the good to the adequate; despite really disliking the character of Candela, Anna Skellern performed the patter song “Model Behaviour” with technical expertise, and I really enjoyed Jérôme Pradon’s singing of “Yesterday Today and Tomorrow”, the moment when Ivan cunningly moves on to his next woman. Tamsin Greig’s singing voice has an attractive fragility that conveys the emotion and dramatic reflection of songs such as “Island”, but I always felt she was just millimetres away from hitting the wrong note, and sadly I just didn’t have confidence in her overall performance. Ricardo Afonso gave an entertaining performance as the Taxi Driver, although I felt his singing lacked a sense of occasion or urgency – too laid back to fill the role of commentator. The excellent Dale Rapley – a wonderful Horace Vandergelder to Janie Dee’s Hello Dolly in Leicester a couple of years ago – is strangely caught up taking a few of the minor roles.
The book, music and lyrics are David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, responsible for the sublime Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a few yards away up the Strand. It’s fascinating to consider that the same team can create one such good work and one such bland one. The couple to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left absolutely hated it; the American tourist to my right who was “up for it” before it started just slept all the way through. I don’t suppose I was the only person who muttered the phrase “audience on the verge of a nervous breakdown” on the way out. Online research tells me that they have actually cut a couple of the songs from the original 2010 Broadway production. For this relief much thanks. Not good enough to survive, not bad enough to become a cult hit.