Musicals are notoriously difficult to get right. Even the best and most experienced of composers, lyricists, and book-writers have failures in their bottom drawer they’d rather forget. Sadly, I can’t help but feel that I’ve just sat through one of them at The Playhouse by way of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane – responsible for music & lyrics, and book respectively – have proved they can produce the goods. Their show Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – though I had my misgivings about it when I reviewed it in March 2014 – is currently still packing them in at The Savoy Theatre.
It’s even more of a surprise then that this re-written and re-scored 2010, 69-performance Broadway flop (plus previews) – billed as ‘Pedro Almosovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ and based on the cult Spanish director’s 1988 Oscar-winning film of the same name – should fail so spectacularly in hitting the mark.
Let me caveat that. This isn’t an evening of unrelenting John Robinson theatrical torture. It’s just not very good. Though even that’s not the full story. The book is fine. In fact the book is funny. The book has everything you’d want from a fast moving farce with a world increasingly in turmoil as the evening progresses, with a whole plethora of outlandishly implausible strands being sent out into the ether only to fall gloriously and unexpectedly back into place for the denoument.
The problem is, asthings stand the producers have a very funny play hobbled by being stuffed full of some of the most humourless and disposable songs ever to grace a West End stage. This is a score which only a committed masochist would ever listen to on CD, and just about every song could be removed and you wouldn’t see the hole it left. Every song that is, with one notable exception, more of which later.
The plot really is too convoluted to relate. Suffice to say, Tamsin Greig makes her musical theatre debut as Pepa, an actress whose world is in the process of falling apart folling her having been dumped by the lawyer, Ivan (Jerome Pradon), she’s been going out with. If Greig doesn’t possess the most expressive of musical theatre voices she more than makes up for it in her masterful comic timing.
Ivan’s first wife Lucia (Haydn Gwynne) is essentially mad having spent time in what’s called a hospital but was probably an asylum. Ms Gwynne brings a much needed touch of class to the proceedings. As well as being a gifted comic actress herself, she brings the musical theatre punch missing in the leading lady. In fact, she gets to sing just about the only song of any merit, the Act Two eleven o’clock number ‘Invisible’; a lament for the way that women of ‘a certain age’ find themselves ignored and excluded by a society obsessed with youth.
Of the rest of the cast the one to get most stage time is the multi-talented Ricardo Afonso as a sort of narrator cum taxi driver, a talented and funny guy with a voice and delivery evocative of Spain, but again, in spite of the Spanish flavour that the character gives to the piece, I don’t see the point of the disposable songs given to him, especially the opening number, Madrid.
There’s a nice turn from Anna Skellern as the vacuous model candela, and one of my favourite actors, Michael Matus makes a welcome return to the West End in various supporting roles.
Bartlett Sher’s direction is fluid and inconspicuous on Anthony Ward’s attractive double-height set, though Peter Mumford’s flashy and evocative lighting will probably be the only craft to win any prizes, and makes the whole production look more expensive than it probably is.
This production is billed as a ‘strictly limited 20 week run’ though tickets can currently only be purchased on the ATG website for the next 13 weeks (to April 9th). For the sake of all concerned, I hope it outruns its Broadway tryout.