“The car’s OK but where’s the wheels…?”
The Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was less than a stellar success so it is little surprise that it is a majorly reworked version of the show that has opened at the Playhouse Theatre four years later. But even after all the reconstruction and renovation that has been done to Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbek’s score, it is hard to feel that director Bartlett Sher has really nailed it here either.
For something based on a Pedro Almodóvar film, there’s a shocking uncertainty of tone, or more accurately a lack of any real sense of tone at all. The story in set in late 80s Madrid but there’s little concession to either this particular decade or country (though there is bafflingly one incongruously Hispanic accent). One could argue that this is a wise decision but the issue lies in that no overarching conceit of any substance has replaced it.
So we’re trapped in this vaguely modern, vaguely Western set-up that just constantly errs towards the bland. Hints of surrealism (a dream-like female matador stalks the action, as does a Spanish troubadour) are left less unexploited or played too straight; Sher also uses devices like Brechtian captions to little effect; and the default mode of Yazbek’s score is maudlin balladeering which saps both energy and pace from what is essentially a farce.
What saves the show, to a certain extent, is a cracking cast who enhance the material with their skill and hard work. Tamsin Greig reveals herself to be a more than competent musical theatre actress as leading lady Pepa (the mistress) and naturally shines in the more comic moments; Haydn Gwynne provides real gravitas in the show’s one genuinely affecting musical moment in ‘Invisible’ as well as nailing the unhinged mentality of Lucia (the ex-wife); and Seline Hizli also shines (as the ex-wife’s son’s fiancée).
But the man at the centre of them all – Jérôme Pradon’s Ivan – is more effective as a barely seen but frequently mentioned presence, than when he actually gets a solo number, so flimsy is the characterisation he’s given then. And personally, it was a little frustrating to see the talents of Willemijn Verkaik and Michael Matus reduced to supporting roles with little chance to shine vocally. Ricardo Afonso’s natural charm counteracts some of this as the narrating taxi driver but there’s no hiding that this remains a show on the verge of not really being entertaining enough.