I haven’t seen Pedro Almodóvar’s hit film that shot him to international stardom in 1988, but before seeing the new West End musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I was aware that Broadway version that played a few years ago received such bad reviews it closed early. So it was with mixed expectations that I turned up at the Playhouse Theatre this week to see Tamsin Greig in her musical theatre debut as Pepa, a voiceover artist who’s life is turned upside down when she’s dumped by her married lover, Ivan.
In the hope of avoiding the fate of its Broadway predecessor, this London version has apparently been altered and streamlined by its creators, but I still couldn’t find much to sink my teeth into. There seemed to be no good reason for the creation of a musical version – Why were they singing?, I kept asking myself, as the musical numbers miserably failed to drive the action forwards – and the characters are more caricatures than believable women – a shame when there’s a cast packed full of brilliant actresses, which is so rare on the London stage. Furthermore, I found it frustrating that these women were all working themselves up into a state of frenzy over one man or other, though perhaps this would have been less annoying had the characters been afforded greater depth, and therefore given a believable reason for their histrionics.
However, where the production does excel is in the lighting, set design and, above all, the costumes. Anthony Ward’s two-tiered set is put to best use as Pepa’s Madrid apartment, and, combined with Peter Mumford’s lighting design, it beautifully evokes the colour, heat and chaos of the city, as well as the turmoil that characterises Pepa’s state of mind. The costumes have been designed by Caitlin Ward, and I found myself marvelling in particular at the different coats Ward gives Hadyn Gwynne to wear, ranging from candy floss pink to deep purple and vivid green. They’re bold, bright and beautifully tailored, speaking more volumes about her character than many of the words she’s afforded. (It’s a shame I haven’t been able to find any pictures online.) Greig also sports some brightly coloured dresses, and the main members of the supporting cast can often be found in shocking yellow tights, or vividly coloured jeans and dresses. The cumulative effect of such a riot of colour, combined with Mumford’s lighting and Ward’s set design, provides the edge, texture, vibrancy and sense of fun that the music and lyrics so desperately lack.