Good grief, why don’t more West End shows dose up their characters on Valium? One of the highlights of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with the rest skirting on the brink of misandry whilst simultaneously celebrating a man who can juggle more than one woman. The title perhaps suggests a women ‘collective’ – a togetherness in the sex’s apparently innate hysteria. There’s plenty of that, however there’s more competition among the women than mutual empathy, especially the leads. Having not seen the film, I went into this blind. Though hysteria is indicated, a predominantly feminist approach is what I expected; instead I received farcical hilarity and not altogether favourable stereotypes.
Based on Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-nominated film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is set in 1987 and focuses on voice-over artist Pepa (Tamsin Greig) and her persistent worries about the absence of her lover, Ivan (Jerome Pradon). Thrown into the mix are Ivan’s ex-wife, Lucia, (Haydn Gwynne) who hasn’t seen her former spouse for 20 years due to her being incapacitated at a psychiatric hospital, their son Carlos (Haydn Oakley) and his prim fiancee, Marisa (Seline Hizli), as well as Pepa’s best friend, ‘dumb’ model Candela (Anna Skellern).
Bartlett Sher’s direction is interesting, especially when presenting Pepa’s dream sequences. As time progresses these subconscious ‘episodes’ are presented as neither here nor there and as an audience we are left wondering what is and isn’t real. Hysteria as a theme is deliberated over very early on and quite forcibly. Candela’s emotions are always heightened, from a very funny scene in which she is manically trying to get in touch with Pepa to some stereotypical and mild moments acting as the ditzy model. Lucia is plain old crazy and much of her delusional thoughts and grief are directed at her husband’s apparent current lover, Pepa, instead of him. Should he really be let off that easily? Marisa’s journey is a fascinating one. Once uptight, she loosens up drastically after having her first sexual experience (albeit in a dream). Does sex liberate the hysteric? Apparently so. I’m underwhelmed by how singular this idea is.
Anthony Ward’s set and Peter Mumford’s lighting design are appropriately garish, with a blindingly fluorescent stage. It is split across two levels connected by a winding staircase, acting well for many a dramatic entrance. Jeffrey Lane’s book and the sound is suitably Spanish and sexy and actually, the voices aren’t bad with Ricardo Afonso emitting the most emotion with his.
The cast are a joy and especially Gwynne and Skillern. It is apparent that both act beyond the script and provide the most depth to the otherwise flat humour. Greig is good though perhaps my expectations were too high because she isn’t great. Holly James’s Matador is a surprising stand out. She commands all attention whenever on stage and exudes a frightening yet exciting sexual presence.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is fun but much is just too obvious. The issues that plague these characters and humorous tone of the piece are not deep or thoughtful enough for my taste but I’m sure will please most who either love the film or are looking for a jolly good night out.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is playing at the Playhouse Theatre until 9 April. For more information and tickets, see the Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown website.