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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.