There was an actually thrilling moment part-way through Women on the Verge when I realised I was experiencing something quite rare: a large group of powerful female characters performing together on a West End stage. It’s a shame then that, even with two force-of-nature headliners, Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne, director Barlett Sher delivers a distinctly bloodless (re)production – a term that feels very apt here, because Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: The Musical feels like a high-gloss photocopy, faithful enough to the source material’s plot and aesthetic, but capturing almost none of its chaotic joy and fierce vitality.
So it turns out this West End version is a complete overhaul of an original attempt, mauled savagely on its Broadway opening. But who knows what tinkering actually went on, because the result remains bizarrely dispassionate, occasionally delightful but mostly estranging. Inconsistency is the only constant – the all-new ‘stripped back’ aesthetic stretches to a chalkboard, wheeled arduously on and off, a kind of quasi-Brechtian signage that certainly succeeds in alienating. There’s the vaguely evocative but unremarkable opening song, complete with requisite Spanish-y hand claps and lots of purposeful striding.
Tamsin Greig never fails to amuse, specialising as she does in sharp, self-possessed women pushed to the limit, balancing dignity with delirium. But she hasn’t got much room for manoeuvre as Pepa, always centre stage but sorely underwritten, a series of labels and actions – ‘fading actress’, ‘abandoned lover’, ‘crying’, ‘pregnant’ – strung together in the general shape of a person. In her singing debut, she has a surprisingly strong, somewhat colourless voice, tuneful but utterly without texture, she has to force the undulating Spanish vowels that are this play’s signposts for passion, as the script skimps entirely on poetics. For the most part, Jeffrey Lane’s dialogue judders along, with characters swapping abrupt one liners that don’t quite connect. It might work caustically well at times, ‘Why do you love me?” a doubting fiancé asks her potential husband, who responds cheerfully “..Why not?” – but more often it’s bitty and clunky, the flashes of absurdity fading out on their way to us, leaving only a gaping chasm where the laughs should be.
Of course, it’s possible to see what Sher and team were aiming for here – an affectionate and intentionally silly caper with something raw and heartfelt at its core, its near-farcical melodrama entirely in keeping with somewhat self-absorbed, privileged society it gently satirises. Occasional tenderness pierces through the tedium: “I am just surprised by life sometimes!” ex-wife Lucia (Gwynne) declares. Sailing effortlessly, majestically through her scenes, Gwynne easily makes us giddy…but when she sails out of them, things noticeably flat-line. Fortunately, Anna Skellern is also a frequent joy as thrill-seeking, ever-collapsing Castella, rescuing us when Gwynne or Greig can’t.
We could read closely into original film-maker Pedro Almodovar’s own response to the show – he called it ‘beautiful’ – because, true enough, designer Anthony Ward provides a stunning set, a sleeker, cleaner, near-clinical imitation of Almodovar’s own garish gorgeousness. Once the meta-theatrical shambling is done with, the action settles on Pepa’s high rise apartment, but its perfection serves only as a visual reminder of how Sher’s sapped something vital from the story. Tim Crouch talks about intrusions of the ‘real’ killing theatre and, at one point Greig has a television, a blender and a working tap on the go – the decidedly fatal overdose. Despite a last-minute attempt at resuscitation at the end of the first half, the show only comes back limping post-interval, including a palpably desperate, late-in-the-game introduction of a revolve. At a particular lull, the much sought-after Ivan (who gives no clue at all as to why several amazing women might be in love with him) sits on the edge of the stage and directs his polyamorous serenade to a female audience member. Of course, at this point, the sudden interaction feels genuinely invasive, only emphasising how far the play has receded into itself.
To top it off, it’s only technically a musical – rather than driving the action forward, David Yazbek’s numbers skip through and out of your mind instantaneously: mostly loungy, vaguely Spanish numbers with lyrics that it’s best not to over-analyse. How exactly Sherr and team have managed to turn something so vibrant, knowingly histrionic and actually fun into a production so utterly perfunctory would be almost impressive if it wasn’t depressing. Those usual questions about any adaptation pervade: ‘Why this? Why now?’ In the end, Women on the Verge is little more than an excited fan letter to its source material, at its worst, it holds up an unflattering mirror to Almodovar’s classic.