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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Review 2015

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The toilets at the Playhouse Theatre have had a bit of an internal make-over since I last visited (so that's where the restoration charge has gone!), but it's the sign on the door of the gents that's the give-away: caballeros, it now says.

Would that the rest of the musical version of Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown have maintained that spirit of authenticity. Though there's a prowling matador-outfitted actress and a properly Spanish-sounding Madrid cab driver (Ricardo Afonso), the accents are otherwise all over the place from Cockney (for a couple of policemen) to Home Counties.

That's not the only problem with this weirdly positioned musical that replaces Almodóvar's driving comic energy with a show of sluggish momentum; perhaps the valium that's famously put in the gazpacho in the plot has ended up in the show itself.

The outrageousness of Almodóvar's comedy is duly dissipated into a series of overlapping coincidences and breaks for songs that establish the characters thoughts and feelings. But farce should have no time to pause for thought; it needs to keep hurtling forwards. As a result, a sense of desperation affects the show, and not for the right reasons.

These women, variously abandoned and abused by the men in their life, are as the title suggests in crisis, but the show has an identity crisis all of its own. It's no longer the splashy Broadway spectacular that misfired in New York in 2010; instead there's more of a chamber feeling to it, as Anthony Ward's sleekly designed white set contains all the locations for it. There also seem to be more extended book scenes, so that it sometimes feels like a play with songs.

A formidable cast, however, do their best by its confusing mix of tone and textures. As two women in crisis over a man who has abandoned them, Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne are a splendid study in contrasts, variously driven frantic and mad by it. Yet as events swirl around them that also include a best friend who finds herself dating a terrorist, the show should take on a restless energy; here it feels only like a slow and laboured journey.

But David Yazbek's score - alternately jaunty and sombre - provides its own atmospheric relief, and is superbly played by Greg Arrowsmith's small band.

The West End could do with a new musical comedy, but this one doesn't hit the spot.


"An absolute joy of an evening, built paradoxically on the despair, rejection, heart-break and jealousy that comes with love betrayed...David Yazbek's warm, Latin American-flavoured music and lyrics sometimes incline to the generic."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph

"There are mercifully no funny-foreigner accents. But the music, performed by a visible six-strong band, has a distinctly Spanish flavour with its mambo rhythms and a stabbing energy that powerfully projects the emotional agitation of the characters."
Paul Taylor for The Independent

"Tamsin Greig gives a sparky performance as she skitters around Madrid in this knockabout, rueful never resolves a basic problem: how to incorporate songs without slowing down the story's momentum."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"Crucial to its appeal are stellar performances from Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne. For Greig this is a first foray into musical theatre, and while her singing voice is unlikely to win her an army of new admirers her acting is detailed and nimble."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

"It's still a little stiff and uneasy: the madcap pace feels particularly forced at the outset. In fact the team could go further in surrendering the style to the surreal logic of the plot..."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times

External links to full reviews from popular press
Telegraph - The Independent - The Guardian

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