The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 4 September, 2007

There are lamentably few adaptations that turn a fine piece of work in one medium into an equally fine piece in another whilst remaining faithful in both spirit and substance to the original rather than re-making it in a new image. John Huston's film of Joyce's The Dead springs to mind, and Leonard Cohen's musical settings of poems by Lorca and Cavafy. Samuel Adamson's stage version of Pedro Almodóvar's 1999 film Todo sobre mi madre joins this exalted group. Adamson takes not just the skeleton but the entire musculature of Almodovar's screenplay, making individual moments slightly more explicit or marginally more intense when the intimate, penetrating gaze of the camera needs to be translated into a theatrical environment. This is precision craftsmanship.

More to the point, it continues to work beautifully as a collective portrait of a group of women (two of whom, this being Almodóvar, happen to have penises) brought together by the death of the narrator, 17-year-old Esteban. His mother Manuela subsequently returns to Barcelona and her transvestite prostitute friend Agrado, through whom she meets young nun Sister Rosa, who turns out to be carrying both the child and the HIV of Manuela's vanished "shemale" husband Lola. Manuela obtains a job as personal assistant to Esteban's acting idol Huma Rojo, but is regarded with jealousy by Huma's junkie girlfriend Nina. Rosa'a patrician art-forger mother looks in periodically. This is a world without men as such: the principal unambiguously male adult figure is largely fictional, being Stanley Kowalski in the staged scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire in which Huma plays Blanche Dubois. Tennessee Williams and Lorca echo through the tale, with those common preoccupations of trying to be authentically oneself, and happily so, in a world which makes no concessions.

Tom Cairns' direction is by and large admirably unfussy. I was uncertain about the periodic use of miked-up, front-curtain speeches by Agrado and the departed Esteban, but in the latter case the boy does need to be maintained as a presence, so some analogue of film voiceover is necessary. In the case of Agrado, similar reservations about the Welsh-accented camp of Mark Gatiss's performance are dismissed by his final announcement to the audience whose contrast "buys" all that has preceded it. (Gatiss does, however, need to learn how to put on a pair of tights so that they don't twist around his legs.) Hildegarde Bechtler's set design does little to aid Adamson in addressing the problem of numerous shorter screen-like scenes, so we endure frequent blackouts and curtains; against that, the design is both inventive and so detailed that it even reproduces the disgusting op-art wallpaper pattern from Manuela's flat in the film.

Colin Morgan as Esteban continues to build on the promise he showed down the road at the Young Vic in the title role of Vernon God Little earlier this year. His mother Manuela is played by Lesley Manville, one of the most reliable pairs of hands on our stage, who deserves more than such faint-sounding praise. It is time she became a name beyond circles of theatre cognoscenti. Here, she more than holds her own even in the daunting company of Diana Rigg and Eleanor Bron. As Rosa's mother, Bron serves mostly to add poise and cachet; as Huma, Rigg enjoys both playing up and subverting the characteristics of diva-dom. On press night, she appeared surprised and amused that the stage crew had taken to heart Huma's instruction in the play to wring out more curtain calls; mandatorily enthused first-night crowd notwithstanding, I cannot remember when last I saw so many curtain calls in a domestic production, nor (pace Huma) were we really being all that artificially milked.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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