All About My Mother, Samuel Adamson’s English-language adaptation of the 1999 Oscar-winning film by Pedro Almodóvar, received its world premiere last night (4 September, previews from 25 August) at the Old Vic Theatre, where its limited season continues until 24 November (See News, 21 Jun 2007).

Following the tragic death of her beloved son Esteban, Manuela goes to Barcelona in search of his father. But before she can exorcise her guilt she gets caught up in the lives of three women: Agrado, a long-lost transvestite friend; Rosa, a young nun in search of love; and Huma Rojo, the famous actress that Manuela’s son so admired. As Manuela’s life begins to have meaning once more, her son’s father returns and the journey of discovery and forgiveness comes full circle.

Tom Cairns’ premiere production marks the first major Almodóvar stage adaptation in 20 years and the first time ever that the Spanish filmmaker has consented to his work being produced in English. The cast features Lesley Manville (as Manuela), Diana Rigg (Huma Rojo), Charlotte Randle (Nina Cruz), Joanne Froggatt (Sister Rosa), Eleanor Bron (Rosa’s mother), Colin Morgan (Esteban) and The League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss (Agrado - pictured).

With the film’s winning formula front of mind, first night critics entered the Old Vic suspicious as to how yet another screen-to-stage production would turn out. All About My Mother raised many of the usual gripes and other observations on that subject, yet also managed to divide critics on whether it was better (though certainly longer) than the film or not. While one critic missed the “cinematic close-ups” and another complained that the play was too close a “copy” of the original, all agreed that Adamson’s adaptation was “edgier” and provided “clarification” of the film’s plot. There was praise too for the central performances of Lesley Manville, Diana Rigg and Mark Gatiss.

  • Heather Neill on (three stars) - “Adamson has picked up on Almodóvar’s celebration of female strength and amplified the importance of the maternal. But he has also injected an English acerbity. As a result, his version of All About My Mother is much funnier, edgier and more satirical than the film, and the chief beneficiary of the change in tone is Mark Gatiss (from The League of Gentlemen) as the man-woman Agrado. His front-of-cloth turns and the use of the theatrical curtain between scenes are of a piece with the role-playing theme: no one is straightforward and many of the players have consciously reinvented themselves … Lesley Manville is excellent as Manuela: broken but capable, passionate but contained, a mother first, last and always. Diana Rigg elegantly embodies the star in danger of being diminished by her damaged lover, Nina, a part which, however, provides Charlotte Randle with limited opportunities. Joanne Froggatt is a vulnerable innocent Rosa, more child-like than her counterpart in the film, Penelope Cruz. Director Tom Cairns keeps the whole thing moving at - very nearly - movie pace, helped by Hildegard Bechtler’s adaptable set.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “While Adamson keeps the intertextual references to A Streetcar Named Desire, Blood Wedding and All About Eve, there is no way he can match the movie's propulsive rhythm and deft shorthand: you lose classic Almodóvar moments as when a dying daughter is recognised by her demented father's dogs but not by the man himself. That a 95-minute film has become a 150-minute play says much. But Tom Cairns' fluent production contains some fine performances. Lesley Manville's Manuela has exactly the right mix of grit, love and endurance. Diana Rigg lends the diva a luminous blend of vulnerability and camp grandeur - warning Manuela, as she stands in as Stella in Streetcar: ‘Try to upstage me, my darling, and I will eat you for supper’. Eleanor Bron, as the nun's painterly mum, exudes a nice sense of flailing helplessness. The result is a sincere attempt to re-invent a great movie. But who would want a copy, however well done, when they can have the original.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Adamson has undoubtedly made intelligent use of the theatricality inherent in the original picture … But the many scene changes involving Hildegard Bechtler’s excessively elaborate, literal-minded sets slow the action to a crawl, and as a result Tom Cairns’ production badly lacks fluency and a sense of internal rhythm. More damagingly still, in a tragi-comic work in which the characters’ emotions can move from desperate grief to wild hilarity in the blink of an eye, I missed the intimacy of cinematic close-ups that can be so revealing of the inner emotional life of a character. Yet there remains a huge amount to enjoy. Adamson’s adaptation does full justice to both Almodóvar’s outrageous near-the-knuckle comedy and his emotional generosity, especially in his portrayal of women. And if the actors sometimes seem somewhat geographically adrift, so that it is never quite clear whether we are in Barcelona or the Waterloo Road, there nevertheless remains a feast of fine acting … For all its occasional clumsiness – and there are a couple of alarmingly weak supporting performances – this is a rewardingly full-blooded and warm-hearted night of theatre.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Tom Cairns' oddly old-fashioned production is made ponderous by designer Hildegard Bechtler's attempts to replicate the film's topographical variety, as the action moves with Miss Manville's suitably intense but slightly pallid Manuela to Barcelona, accompanied by fussy scene changes and film projections. Thanks, however, to Adamson's elegant reworkings and clarifications of Almodóvar's film script, All About My Mother opens eyes and minds to an off-centre Spain of outsiders and rebels, refracted through Almodóvar's gay and camp sensibility. Manuela, determined to find Esteban's father, returns to post-Franco, liberal Barcelona … The differences and similarities between real life and life fashioned by playwrights loom large. As the great actress Huma Rojo, who is seen smouldering behind the scenes and on stage playing Williams' thirtysomething Blanche DuBois, the ever-attractive but over-60 Dame Diana inevitably strains credulity. Her toughness is also at disconcerting odds with the butterflyish Blanche. She does, though, beautifully convey the angry imperiousness of the older woman, sexually in thrall to a druggy sidekick, Charlotte Randle's Nina. Huma, like all Almodóvar's women here, proves a valiant life enhancer.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Those in the business of transposing film to the stage have got more adventurous as well as busier of late … You’re absorbed in Tom Cairns’ production, which sticks to the basic story, adding little of importance except the intermittent appearance of the eager, watchful ghost of the young man whose death starts the proceedings … It’s hard to imagine a richer film or, let’s concede, play. Everything adds to the moral and emotional mix: from those symbolic organ transplants to A Streetcar Named Desire, a play in which Manuela finds herself performing Blanche’s sister, who has abandoned the genteel life for a sexy man and a city almost as louche as Barcelona. And that’s what Cairns’ production ends up celebrating: the complexities of modern urban life, the contradictions of sexuality and gender, the painful intricacies of desire. But it’s also celebrating the strength, resilience and compassion of its protagonist. Manuela tried to lead the conventional life in Madrid, hiding the truth of her past from her son and, you feel, from herself. By her own admission, she lost her capacity for emotion with the boy’s death. To see the unpretentiously excellent Lesley Manville rediscovering both her history and her heart is invigorating — yes, even on the stage.”

    - by Tom Atkins