This new play by Samuel Adamson is all about Pedro Almodovar and yet very little to do with the famous Spanish film director whose 1999 Oscar-winning film provides the plot, the title and the characters. Adamson has moved Barcelona, the setting for most of the story, much closer temperamentally to his own Southwark Fair, a recent hit at the National Theatre.
The events remain much the same: Manuela lives in Madrid with her teenage son Esteban, an aspiring writer. For a birthday treat, she takes him to see A Streetcar Named Desire starring Huma Rojo, an ageing actress he particularly admires, but he’s killed in a street accident while pursuing the diva for an autograph. Grief-stricken, Manuela returns to Barcelona to find the transsexual father Esteban never knew, whose name he shares and who is unaware of his existence. She meets again street characters from 18 years previously and gives motherly comfort, both to Huma, the actress who is touring as Blanche in the Tennessee Williams play, and to Rosa, a young nun pregnant by her own former lover, now known as Lola. Stated baldly in this way, the plot seems ludicrous and yet, in both film and play, it is gripping.
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.
Although there are other deaths, the play steers clear (perhaps too assiduously) of easy tears, but Huma’s closing quotation about the loss of a loved one from Blood Wedding is profoundly moving. Lorca returns us to the piece’s passionate Spanish roots.
Reappearances of the boy in spirit seem too literal. Agrado, for instance, breaks down explaining that the show cannot go on (Huma’s lesbian drug-addict lover, playing Stella, is incapable) and an appearance by Manuela’s lost son gives him strength. Studiously avoiding sentimentality elsewhere, Adamson seems to embrace it here. When Manuela plays Stella for a night, we do not need to be shown in physical form the source of her anguish.
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.
Adamson, fresh from reworking Shaw’s Saint Joan at the National, continues to surprise and charm. I look forward to his next play which, despite the rewards of adaptation in evidence here, I hope will spring entirely from his own fertile imagination.