It’s no wonder that, in 1988, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown became the international breakthrough hit for famed Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar. It is quite possibly the most Almodóvar of Almodóvar films, establishing much of his cinematic style: the Spanish setting, the farcical humour, the bright colour scheme and, most of all, the focus on female characters.
This musical production based on the film is no different. A farcical melodrama involving a voiceover actress who is left by her married lover, it plays out on a stark white set filled with luminous block colours – like a Mondrian painting in theatrical form. Equally, much like the production itself, it feels a little sterile and lacks that typical Latin fire.
Indeed, Women feels about as Spanish as Mamma Mia is Greek. Aside from the opening number introducing us to 1987 Madrid, only the odd Spanish accent gives away the setting. There’s a lack of passionate chemistry between protagonist Pepa (Tamsin Greig) and her lover Ivan (Jérôme Pradon); instead the focus is the titular women including Ivan’s mad wife Lucia (here understudy Rebecca McKinnis) and Pepa’s ditsy model friend Candela (another understudy, Marianne Benedict). The plot jumps between narrative strands without much development, as Pepa meets Ivan’s son and his fiancée, Lucia attempts to take Ivan to court, Candela sleeps with a known terrorist, and Ivan moves on to Lucia’s lawyer. Eventually, this disparate madness reaches a head by which point we still haven’t really got to grips with each character. Mostly, Ivan – the main source of each nervous breakdown – is rarely seen on stage and is ultimately a shallow, womanising Lothario. As such, we never really understand what is driving Pepa to the edge besides misplaced love.
The primary issue, though, is the score. As is often the case with film-to-musical adaptations, the music comes second to plot. Here it is perfunctory at best, lacking any sense of melody and simply cramming each musical line with text. Stylistically, it’s beige jazz-lite Latin lift Musak. Imagine listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” on repeat for two hours, a slowly shuffling concoction of light percussion and fluttering guitars. It’s only in the final a capella number, sung by the female characters in glorious harmony, that the music makes any impact at all. As a singing taxi driver, Ricardo Alfonso does offer some Spanish guitar and a wonderful tenor, but for the most part the score lacks any flamenco flair.
It’s down to Greig to hold the show together – and she does a brilliant job. Vocally she is not the strongest singer, but her comic timing is exceptional with a performance that delves into the emotional truth of the character in a cast otherwise filled with one-dimensional, if entertaining, caricatures. This farce amuses, but it’s more Costa del Thames than Costa del Sol.
Watch: Women runs at the Playhouse Theatre until May 2015.