Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse Theatre

booking until 9 May

This isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense, not only because I attended a preview of the show a week before press night (something I’d usually flag up clearly anyway), but because the cast of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown were three men (or women) down at this particular performance due to illness. Cue a cancelled show the previous night, and three presumably terrified understudies taking on principle roles with, we were told, not much preparation. Director Bartlett Sher came on stage to speak to the audience pre-show – a first for me – to explain the situation and ask the audience for their support in what must have been a tough week for everyone involved.

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse Theatre
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse Theatre

The illness that plagued the cast sadly meant no Tamsin Greig or Willemijn Verkaik on this occasion, although I was happy to see the wonderful Haydn Gwynne who is on fabulously bonkers form as estranged wife Lucia: more than on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this character is already over the edge. Yet in actual fact, the understudies did a great job and you wouldn’t really know any different. Rebecca McKinnis was excellent in the main role of Pepa, instantly making her likeable and relatable, in spite of all the craziness. Holly James was also strong as Paulina, settling into the role with ease and no sign that this wasn’t her usual part to play. I’ve seen understudies before, of course, but this was the first time I’d seen so many in one performance and so early in the run – it doesn’t usually happen for a reason. However, huge credit to the understudies and the whole team for embracing the “show must go on” attitude and giving a smooth performance that did not reveal any panic under the surface.

The only sign that things were a little different is that there was perhaps a lack of energy throughout; yet this is something that several reviewers have mentioned since, so perhaps that’s the way every night. As for the show itself – the whole thing is rather surreal, as you’d expect from anything based on Almodóvar’s work, and there is some great comedy from Seline Hizli (Marisa) and, in particular, Anna Skellern as Candela: her solo musical number stole the show for me. As the women all spiral into a whirl of madness, helped along by some spiked gazpacho (as surreal as it sounds), they are accompanied by an enjoyable score played by an on-stage orchestra. Overall, the show was a fun night out but sometimes felt like it was trying too hard, and lacked some truthfulness and spark. Yet this not being a typical performance, it’s difficult and, indeed, unfair to make a real judgement. I’d love to revisit the show if I get a chance to see what a different cast would bring, and how the difficult week may have affected the overall feel of the show.

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