The Theatreguide.London Review
The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown
Playhouse Theatre 2015
This is a musical of bits and pieces that don't all work and don't all really belong in the same show. But theatrical alchemy, aided significantly by real star power at its centre, somehow holds it all together to make for a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Jeffrey Lane's book, based closely on the Pedro Almodóvar movie it's adapted from, is built around 40-something Pepa, who is dumped by her long-term lover Ivan via voicemail.
Setting off to find him she encounters instead the wife he dumped twenty years ago for her; the wife's feminist lawyer, who he's dumping Pepa for; Ivan's son, who she didn't know about; his girlfriend; Pepa's own best friend, whose true-love-of-the-week has turned out to be a terrorist; and a jolly cabdriver who always seems to be waiting at the right moment and who doubles as singing narrator.
Did I mention the drugged gazpacho, the pregnancy test or the wooden ducks?
As you might guess, there's a lot of farcical running around and a certain amount of real emotional pain, the main discovery of the musical being that all the women are operating right on the edge of their emotional capacity – in every case because of a man, and in at least three cases the same man – but that most of them are probably going to survive.
To get some of the musical's flaws out of the way first, it really can't decide how serious or comic it wants to be, and switches back and forth too frequently and abruptly. (Case in point – the wife, presented almost throughout as a ridiculous figure, gets one of the show's best songs as she expresses her very real pain, and then goes back to being comic.)
The songs by David Yazbek too rarely rise as high as servicible, the lyrics in particular tending to lapse into shoehorned-in prose that sounds like it was translated literally from some other language. (The wife's song is good, and Ivan gets a clever number justifying his philandering, but that's about it, and Pepa's songs are among the weakest.)
Ah, but. Pepa is played by Tamsin Greig, and that makes up for almost everything.
Nobody can amusingly convey intelligence and all the burdens it carries like Greig, whose Pepa is constantly reacting with bemused amazement that everyone around her can be quite so stupid as they are.
Bartlett Sher's fluid direction has cast members moving scenery about, and some of the most delightful moments come as Greig reacts, in character, to having 'invisible' hands giving her props or helping with costume changes.
Above all, Tamsin Greig brings star quality to the central role. I'm talking Ethel Merman – Michael Crawford – Nathan Lane star quality here, that specialness that lights up the stage, papers over all the cracks in the plot, and makes everything around her seem better than it is while she is better than it.
Greig is an O K singer, though some sloppy sound engineering sometimes distorts and displaces her voice so badly she seems to be lip-syncing to some offstage Debbie Reynolds.
But it is her ability to make every moment real and entertaining, even when it seems to have little to do with the emotionally clashing but equally entertaining moment just before, that carries the evening and makes the comic parts funny and the serious parts touching in equal measure.
The cast also includes Haydn Gwynne as the wife, Anna Skellern as the ditzy friend and Ricardo Afonso as the cabdriver, but frankly I don't think you'd miss much if you saw understudies in their roles.
Go for the star and let her make everything else in the show worth your while.
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Review - Women On The Verge . . . - Playhouse Theatre 2015