Tamsin Greig in Women on the Verge. Photo: Alastair Muir
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Nervous breakdown coming on? Time to burst into song

Tamsin Greig stars in the innovative Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, while the Tate Modern wallet incident presses us to ask: what is art?

The movies of Pedro Almodóvar frequently flirt with becoming musicals – think of the mile-high flight attendant production numbers in his 2013 aviation comedy, I’m So Excited! – and now the relationship has been consummated. His farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has come to the Playhouse Theatre in London in a song-and-dance version radically revised from the one that disappointed on Broadway.

Sitting in the stalls at the premiere on 12 January, the Spanish film-maker certainly could not complain that the dramatist Jeffrey Lane had ditched much of the cinematic narrative. Pepa (Tamsin Greig), an actress who suffers the indignity of being famous for advertising voice-overs and dubbed movies, is dumped through an answerphone message by her thespian lover, Ivan. Unaware of this, his estranged wife, Lucia (Haydn Gwynne), is still seeking revenge on Pepa, while the actress’s best friend, Candela (Anna Skellern), has become involved with an Arab terrorist. House sales, tranquillised gazpacho, police raids and shoot-outs ensue.

Even in translation the script is funny and clever – and that is the show’s biggest problem. Interviewed in the programme, the composer-lyricist David Yazbek says that the first question about turning an existing property into a musical is: “Why does it sing?” This smart remark explains why musicals of, say, The Importance of Being Earnest and Glengarry Glen Ross are an unappealing prospect, with the songs either replacing dialogue or ruining it. “A handbag?/Are you mad?” trills Lady Bracknell.

Yazbek does, however, make Almodóvar’s film sing very inventively. Pepa’s first work after Ivan leaves her is to record her half of a song for which her ex-lover has already laid down his “ghost” track. Her agonised efforts to croon endearments with the voice of a man she now detests create a truly unusual love duet. “Model Behaviour” is what you might call a telephone number, incorporating 27 messages left by Candela on Pepa’s machine. And the Act I finale, “On the Verge”, must be one of few entries in the Broadway songbook that has nine women singing together.

Indeed, the sound of the show is its greatest innovation. Female characters in musical theatre are naturally associated with soprano parts but one of the unusual aspects of this production is that both leading ladies bring distinctively darker and deeper tones. And because, unusually, Gwynne and Greig are high-class speech actors, their stresses and expressions give the script as much punch as the lyrics. Gwynne is magnificent as a sort of Miss Havisham of Madrid, clutching her wedding dress as she hopes for her husband to come back 19 years on.

Yazbek’s score combines jazz with ominous Sondheim-style shivers and flamenco. Almodóvar’s painterly eye for the shade and arrangement of colours has influenced the sets by Anthony Ward and the costumes of Caitlin Ward, so that the stage often resembles an incandescent abstract canvas.

Two elements are unsettling. Although few male writers have focused so often on women as Almodóvar, his feminism at times seems oddly dependent on female stereotypes – vengeful, depressive, impossible, frigid, left by men – common in misogyny. A more temporary problem is that a chilly silence fell on the audience at the revelation that one of the women was involved with an Arab terrorist on the run: evidence of the cultural impact of the Paris massacre. But bleak political periods and the winter months create demand for feel-good entertainment and the wit and pizazz of Women on the Verge could serve that purpose now.

Modestly shuffling on to stage during the press-night curtain call, Almodóvar seemed to call for the UK’s category of best-loved culture-makers to be expanded to include the category of International Treasure.

The art of indifference

Visitors to Tate Modern come across a wallet lying on the floor but their discussion of this minimalistic critique of capitalism is interrupted when a gallery-goer picks up the item he has just dropped from his pocket. At another gallery, cleaners sweep away scattered piles of fags and crisp packets, unaware they have just destroyed an expensive installation by the British debris artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

In these popular but probably apocryphal anecdotes, the wallet-watchers represent the pretentious suckers who fall for the con of contemporary art, typified by practitioners whose work, in the moral of the second story, is literally rubbish. So what do we learn from a genuine incident? The artist Bruce Asbestos has a show called “A/B Testing” running in the café of the Hayward Gallery (on until 1 March). Flat-screens on the walls, with earphones available, play video works. But each time I’ve dropped by, all the coffee drinkers have seemed to be ignoring the work completely. Is this because they know it’s contemporary art, or because they don’t? The Asbestos website promises that the displays will be changed to reflect the public response to the show. If so, how will he deal with people behaving as if the café telly is on the blink? 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.