Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Playhouse Theatre)
Tamsin Greig stars in the West End premiere of the musical based on Pedro Almodóvar's film
Pedro Almodóvar seems an unlikely candidate for musical theatre. The Spaniard's films are decidedly odd, determinedly illogical, semi-surreal jumbles - at odds with the populist and, face it, predictable bent of the West End.
Hardly surprising, then, that David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane's version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown bombed on Broadway. Too distracted, said the New York Times; too choppy and inconsistent. Now they've reworked it, with director Bartlett Sher, scaling it all back for London.
But that's exactly the point, isn't it? Almodóvar's film is distracted. It is choppy and inconsistent. That's what makes a musical make sense - or, put another way, next to no sense at all.
Tamsin Greig plays Pepa, a voice-over actress dumped, via voicemail, by her long-term lover (and colleague) Ivan. In trying to track him down, she discovers a wife (Haydn Gwynne) and a son - even another mistress.
Understandably, her world starts to fall apart - only in Almodóvar's hands, that's not simply a figure of speech. The plot grows woozy. Any linear logic begins to slide.
Her best friend Candela (Anna Skellern) turns out to be shagging a Shiite terrorist, wanted by Madrid's police force, but, after almost jumping off Pepa's balcony, she - Candela - falls for Ivan's son (Haydn Oakley), who's arrived to view Pepa's flat with his uptight fiancé (Seline Hizli), who's now conked out on Pepa's sofa, after drinking the drugged gazpacho that Pepa prepared for Ivan. That's when the police turn up. Then Ivan's wife. Then the phone engineer. Then - hang on - whose story is this? Where's it heading? What day is it? Which way is up? And what's in this soup?
"It's super-smart songwriting: all discord and layers to make your head swim"
The point is that life doesn't make sense. Our worlds are coloured by our feelings, irrational as they are, and everyone's starring in their own life story. Hence the musical form: tone can take over and everyone gets a solo. Yazbek's inventive score genre-hops like a drunken DJ. Flamenco bumps into lounge jazz, the operatic into pop until, as one song puts it, you're "totally tangled up." It's super-smart songwriting: all discord and layers to make your head swim.
Structurally, Lane's book carries the same delirium, deploying the absurdist rhythms of a demented Dario Fo farce, but it suffers - badly - from naffness. It's so front-facing and gag-heavy that - ironic for a show about mental states - his characters have all the inner-life of the pot plants on Pepa's balcony. Even Greig, who can't help but be likeable, has to mime Pepa's emotional rollercoaster with spluttered half-laughs and gulped tears. Gwynne, meanwhile, goes the whole hog, hamming it up - hilariously - as Ivan's deranged, wounded wife.
You wish Sher and designer Anthony Ward had found a more sophisticated stage language. Their world changes colour, but still stays consistent and cartoonish. What's theatrical on film, though, becomes flat on stage, and there's a more disorientating, patchwork approach to be had. As it is, this musical remains on the verge of a breakthrough.