Tamsin Greig saves this eccentric musical adaptation from its own nervous breakdown.
If you’re confused as to the exactly logic behind turning Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 indie classic ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ into a musical then, er, don’t necessarily expect answers by watching it.
A very Spanish film, adapted by an all-American team (Jeffrey Lane, David Yazbek and director Bartlett Sher) in 2010, and now given an extremely English London premiere, this screwball comedy feels like its been translated a few times too many to strictly make sense.
At the centre of it all is the Rock of Gibraltar herself, Tamsin Greig. She makes her musical theatre debut as Pepa, a Madrid TV actor having a trying day which begins when her lover Ivan dumps her by voicemail, setting in motion a chain of events that lead her to discover he’s been concealing a son and a batshit mental wife, Lucia (Haydn Gwynne, a tremendously good sport in a slightly iffy role).
You cast Tamsin Greig, you get Tamsin Greig: she is a tremendous comedy actor, but not a character actor, and her drolly neurotic delivery and knack for undignified physical business is both funny and familiar. Her Tamsin Greig-ishness is enough in itself to kill off any sense that we’re in Spain: in fact, with Anthony and Caitlin Ward’s austerely groovy designs and costumes, it’s easier to imagine it as set in Swinging London. But the casting is worth it: she may be as Spanish as an episode of ‘Eldorado’, but she is funny, lovable, and her big presence binds the somewhat messy story together.
And of course she sings: she has a strong, expressive, slightly harsh voice, and acquits herself fairly. More problematic are the songs themselves: the bossa nova-isn music gels with the show’s aesthetic, but Yazbek’s earnest lyrics are rather at odds with the story, dousing its giddy daftness with earnest emoting. The tunes are by no means integral and it’s questionable whether they’re even necessary: with a modest budget and no big razzle dazzle bits of spectacle, ‘Women on the Verge…’ might have worked better as a clearer, more straightforward farce.
Still, there is something intrinsically winsome about it all: its general wonkiness suits the increasingly mad plot, which culminates in Pepa drugging an entire room full of people before heading out to try and thwart the actions of BFF Candela’s terrorist boyfriend. Not a great musical, but it’s certainly a laugh at a gloomy time of year, and I think we can all drink a glass of valium-laced gazpacho to that.