REVIEW: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse Theatre ✭✭✭

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown at Playhouse Theatre

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Playhouse Theatre
30 December 2014
3 Stars

In the programme for Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, composer David Yazbek says of the differences between the Broadway premiere and the London premiere of the show:

It’s changed tremendously. When it opened, we knew it was good and we also knew it wasn’t exactly what we wanted…There are a few new songs and I cut some of the songs from the original, not because I didn’t like them, just because they weren’t telling the story well. If London is our production, New York was a very expensive out-of-town try-out. This is the best possible version.”

However one might quibble about that point of view, and quibbling will follow later, the belief does not seem to be shared by the director, Bartlett Sher. At last evening’s preview performance, he came onto the stage just before the performance started. Naturally, the audience assumed the worst – Tamsin Greig was indisposed. But after quickly reassuring the audience that the hand-picked cast was all performing as expected, Sher did BOOK TICKETS TO WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN AT THE PLAYHOUSE THEATREsomething I have never seen done on an English or Broadway stage.

He told the audience how hard everyone had worked, how many changes had been carried out that day, how everyone was tired but doing their best, and exhorted the crowd to laugh that more loudly, cheer that more brightly and applaud that more enthusiastically. Having seen the second preview of The Bridges Of Madison County on Broadway, at which Sher made no such appearance or appeal, the only conclusion was that he was worried about the reception this preview might receive. So, he and Yazbeck seem to have conflicting views about this being “the best possible version”.

It would be interesting to know what the third key member of the creative team, Jeffrey Lane, thinks, because, on any view of it, the book and lyrics are the most polished material on show here in Sher’s complete reimagining of Lane’s and Yazbek’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, now in previews at the Playhouse Theatre.

The Broadway version was big on ideas, images, concepts and musical theatre stars. This version is smaller in every way, focussing more particularly on the wife, Lucia, and lover, Pepa, of a famous actor, Ivan, and their destructive adoration for him. There is less attention on the lover’s friend, Candela, than there was, and almost none on Marisa, the unwilling fiancée of Ivan’s son and Lucia’s lawyer, Paulina. But these are the titular Women and although their reasons for falling apart vary, Lane ensures that their situations, desires and motivations are concisely communicated and peppered with genuine hilarity and humanity.

Still, the thing is: this is a MUSICAL. Which means that, almost always, the performers have to be able to sing. Not get away with a tune, but actually sing. Especially when the music is composed to be properly sung and not for Rex Harrison.

The stunning discovery here is that only one person can really sing – well, one principal performer. Maybe one and a half. The ensemble – Yep, they can sing, but so little is required of them. It’s a remarkable waste.

Tamsin Greig is the lead performer here. She is perfect for the acting requirements. She has style, a sense of whimsical élan and a marvellous comic ability. She lands all the jokes and finds the true sense of despair which defines her character. She embraces nonchalance and fury in equal measure. But – Greig can’t sing. Well, at least in the sense that she can’t give full measure and depth to the tunes she is asked to sing.

It’s true that Greig can get by. But the music Yazbek has composed here has real depth, range and breadth: it needs a proper, brassy belter with a great top. Greig is not that. She manages a vocal line as if it were a line in a hymn sung by a makeshift church choir. It is not enough to do justice to this score.

Anna Skellern plays Pepa’s best friend, Candela. She has a complicated love life which is the subject of a show-stopping patter song, Model Behaviour. Here, in Skellern’s hands, it is an incomprehensible muddle, with little connection to tune or lyrics. Skellern can’t sing as well as the show requires. Actually, her entire performance is undercooked – she needs more wildness of spirit, more frenzy, more heart. Candela is a gift of a role; Skellern has not started unwrapping it yet.

As Lucia, Haydn Gwynne is superb in the acting scenes. Her sense of maniacal rage is perfect; she wears the clothes magnificently and is totally in every moment. There is nothing wrong with her pitch perfect performance of a woman driven mad by love for an undeserving man. She is the luscious joy of this production. But – she can’t sing superbly enough to make the Eleven O’Clock number, Invisible, soar as it should. She more than gets by, but, again, the music is not properly served.

Ricardo Afonso is wonderful as the taxi driver. He has an excellent voice, can sing every note to full value and has no difficulty with being both sexy and funny. Each time he takes centre stage, he is triumphant.

This is not true of either Jérôme Pradon (who plays Ivan, Lucia’s husband and Pepa’s lover) or Haydn Oakley (who plays the useless son of Lucian and Ivan). Both are completely, totally, and unfathomably miscast. Pradon cannot sing well enough, is not remotely attractive enough and has the charisma of a fire hydrant. Oakley has a great voice, but it is not well suited to the role, and he is way too dull for the demands of the character.

Pradon’s character is meant to be keeping three women on the verge of life changing, life defining, and life affirming precipices. But it is hard to believe that any woman would bother with him. At all. Oakley really only becomes interesting in Act Two, and then but vaguely. He can harmonise well enough, but there is little life in his character and no sense that he is the son of Lucia. Both portrayals are mystifying. Beautifully written characters are only partially realised, if at all.

Sarah Moyle is delightful as the Concierge at Pepa’s building but I really missed the musical moments that character had in the Broadway version.

Indeed, there was much missed, musically, from the Broadway version. The new material is good, but the previous score had an overall feel, a coherence which the new one does not have. In this incarnation, it is hard to know why this is a musical rather than a play.

Pedro Almodóvar’s successful film is, of course, the inspiration for this production. It is soaked in Spanish sensibilities, the feel of Madrid hot, sexy, juicy and all pervasive. The Broadway production sought to replicate these sensibilities and largely succeeded. The London production, inexplicably, does not.

Perhaps one reason for this is that most of the cast make no attempt at any kind of Spanish accent. It’s curious, because the music and the rhythms (of both song and script) have a clear Spanish pulse. And some characters here do have a spanish accent, which only confuses the issue. In this show, it really should be all Spanish and it is unfathomable why it is not.

But then many of Sher’s decisions with the production are unfathomable. Anthony Ward’s white split-level apartment set confines the action rather than releases it. There is an allegory suggested, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, of a clinical space, a hospital or mental ward possibly, the interior of a mind possibly – this is accentuated when in the opening scenes the ensemble sit on black chairs watching Pepa’s life unravel. There is a real on-the-psychiatrist’s-couch feel.

But then the concept is suddenly abandoned in favour of a more realistic apartment interior with no watchers. This fractures rather than illuminates the text.

But, more than anything, the casting is what is flawed here. Holly James, Michael Matus, Marianne Benedict and Nuno Queimado each do great work in their small ensemble parts but each would be better – much better, because they can actually sing – in the major roles they cover than those who play those roles. This is not, in every case, because the leads are not good actors, but because they are not musical performers with voices that can give rich, full life to Yazbek’s score. Their covers are.

Musical Supervisor Matthew Brind and Musical Director Greg Arrowsmith provide good musical support, but the reduced orchestra results in a poorer sound. Horns, reeds and strings are truly missed.

Tamsin Greig is widely reported, including in the programme for this production, as being reluctant to accept the role of Pepa in this production. She was persuaded to take the role, despite her reservations about her lack of singing prowess, by her agent and the producers and, presumably, Sher. Greig should have followed her instincts. She is a wonderful comic actress who can be exceptionally good in plays. It is unfair, both on her and musical theatre as an art form, to cast Greig in a role like Pepa. It is precisely the same as casting a non-singer as Mama Rose in Gypsy or Todd in Sweeney Todd. It is plain wrong.

Must new musical after new musical not work as they might or fail before producers realise that “stars” don’t and never have guaranteed the success of new musical works? Skill, talent and ability – they are the attributes new musical works need to thrive and prosper. The musicality of every score needs best and full attention always, every time. No exceptions.

There is so much to admire in Yazbek’s score and Lane’s lyrics. Because of this and some very fine acting from Greig and Gwynne, this production is well worth seeing.

The Broadway production had a style, energy, focus and zest which was thrilling and very European in tone; it was, perhaps, too smart for its audiences. But here, Sher’s direction and the wrong-headed casting makes it seem as though it is the production that is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.


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