The Old Vic’s adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s most accessible film to date strives to be as faithful as possible to its source, as a result delivering an impression of a film full of theatrical touches rather than enjoyable theatre in its own right.
Lesley Manville gives a fearless performance as Manuela, the grieving mother who returns to her old stamping ground of Barcelona after the death of her 17-year-old son. As she looks for the boy’s father, she reunites with her transvestite prostitute friend, gains a surrogate sister in the form of a pregnant nun, and gets a job as PA to the actress whose autograph her son was trying to get when he was struck by a car and killed.
And it’s when Manville meets actress Huma Rojo (Diana Rigg), accepting the offer of a job on condition that she never talks about her past, that the play really starts to feel alive. Unfortunately, this is so far in to an otherwise lumpen first act that it proves difficult to resuscitate the production. One of the most powerful scenes between Manville and Rigg occurs when Manuela finally reveals the tragedy of her son’s death, and Rojo remembers her part in it. But the emotional punch is pulled severely, because the scene has played out in front of the audience already.
Samuel Adamson’s adaptation seems to prefer addition, though, rather than excision. In some places this works, expanding Mark Gatiss’ role as transvestite Agrado (a performance which, despite the Welsh accent, is still remarkably close to some of his cross-dressing League of Gentlemen characters) to entertaining front of curtain during scene changes. Mostly, though, particularly with the addition of Manuela’s dead son Esteban (Colin Morgan) as an itinerant ghost, it detracts from the emotional intimacy which made the source material so appealing, and is already under threat on a cavernous stage.
As an ardent Almodovar fan for many years, I have been anxiously waiting for a good translation of his work on to the stage. I still am.
Reviewed for The Stage