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?

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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. 

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