At one point in the swirling mayhem of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a character catches sight of what she thinks is a mirror but is in fact a Picasso portrait. “My God, I look dreadful!” she exclaims. It’s a throwaway gag (and very funny in context), but it’s perhaps also symbolic. With its primary-coloured set, farcical plot, hectic pace and illogical structure, this stage musical of Pedro Almodóvar’s much-loved 1988 film aims to use splintered style and self-conscious theatricality to get at the fact that life, as experienced, often doesn’t make sense. It’s a second shot for the creative team, who mounted an ill-fated Broadway version in 2010. And it seems apt for a show all about tenacity that this slimmed-down version comes nearer its mark and features stellar performances from Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne.
With a plot as twisted and tangled as an old-fashioned phone cord, writer Jeffrey Lane and director Bartlett Sher wisely go for simplicity and theatrical resourcefulness: a couple of chairs stand in as a taxi. This and David Yazbek’s cheeky, Spanish-flavoured live music keep the pace moving and contribute to the dizzy, disorientating sense of life falling away that accompanies the heroine, Pepa, as she lurches round Madrid in pursuit of her errant lover, bumping into his ex-wife and a host of other casualties of love.
The staging deliberately reminds us of the artifice of theatre, pointing up classic farce tactics, announcing scene changes with Brechtian placards, including a nod to Hamlet (the rosemary in the drugged gazpacho) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the revealing sleep induced by said gazpacho). Shakespeare, after all, was a master at creating dreamlike stage worlds to reflect the complex truth of inner turmoil.
Most important, it thrusts the onus on to the cast to draw out the bruised feelings behind the fizzing disarray. Greig brings her touching tragicomic expertise to Pepa and a rich, rough emotional truth to her musical solos. Gwynne is superb as the ex-wife and her painful song about the invisibility of middle-aged women gets to the heart of the show.
It’s still a little stiff and uneasy: the madcap pace feels particularly forced at the outset. In fact the team could go further in surrendering the style to the surreal logic of the plot: we are accustomed to mashed-up classics. But this becomes a joyous evening: an affectionate, poignant and defiant tribute to female resilience.
Photograph: Alastair Muir