Written by Sadie Hasler


Preview: On the Verge

A stage version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown launches in the West End this month. Sadie Hasler went to a special performance and found herself falling in love with its stars.

Sadie Hasler, third from left, with the cast. Photo by Dan Wooller.

Once upon a time Sandi Toksvig taught me how to coddle an egg. Naturally, I didn’t expect her to remember such a low-level interaction when I met her last week at a press night and sure as eggs are eggs she didn’t. Nevertheless, I stood there quietly beaming at her, hand poised to jot down any curveball culinary tips, and wondering how she got her skin so gleamy. (Probably all the egg whites.)

The beaming/gleaming was at the launch of new West End show Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s been adapted for the stage from Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 film of the same name, by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels fame. I was instantly drawn to the title and wondered if there would be any performance artists screaming into handbags or lobbing penis-shaped vol-au-vents in the foyer to greet us, but alas.

Like the film, the musical is set in Spain in the late 1980s, amid the messy love lives of several women. Central character Pepa, an actress and singer, struggles to deal with being dumped by her boyfriend. The plot thickens as his ex-wife, their son and his fiancé show up. To make matters worse, Pepa’s best friend believes she is dating a terrorist. Apparently “chaos ensues!” – theatre blurb code for “bring extra Maltesers coz you’re gonna need something to crunch, mofo.”

The cast weren’t ready to give us the full whammy as they’re still in rehearsal, at the two weeks in and ‘killing themselves’ stage apparently, but we were treated to a selection of songs and a bit of chat with some serious sounding men and the fun female stars, all hosted by diminutive legend that is the egg-coddling Sandi Toksvig. To be honest, I forget precisely who the men were. I think they wrote it or did the music, but who cares about the words and the songs?

The cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Picture by Jay Brooks

Once the men had talked about the origins of the show, revered lady of stage and screen Haydn Gwynne came out and had a natter with Sandi. She got us on side straight away with a lovely anecdote about her partner wanting to stab her with a bread knife when she played Margaret Thatcher. We all chuckled knowingly and under that aural cover of anti-bitch camaraderie, I managed to hide the fact some champagne bubbles had gone up my nose and I was on the verge of a snot spurt.

Then Tamsin Greig came out to do a song and I fell in love. Actual love. The girl has got it. Whatever ‘it’ is – ‘je ne sais quoi’, the X factor, the bit of angel dust that God last dropped, whatever – she’s got it. I could not take my eyes off her and neither could anyone else.

Sandi maintained her cool, but, well, that’s Sandi. She’s Danish. It’s cold there. Takes them longer to thaw. Plus, she was being paid to keep it all together for God’s sake. If she’d started flapping and fawning it would have descended into mass hysteria and greek-style luvvie licking and then where would we be? Some after-hours ladies-only drinking joint in Soho with dim lighting and an undented reputation for keeping media secrets probably. Awful. Really, really hideous. DAMN YOU, TOKSVIG, YOU CONSUMMATE PROFESSIONAL.

At one point, Tamsin, or Tammers as I like to call her, cast her gaze on me and did that thing musical stars do when they get to the middle of a song and want to make one person in the front row feel like they have been specially chosen to feel better than everyone else (who hadn’t been allocated the same seat by an automated ticketing system). Well, I almost combusted. I came over all unnecessary like a wan corseted debutante when a Darcy type comes to call. I didn’t just beam at Tammers, I almost split my bloody cheeks apart. If I hadn’t forcibly adjusted my smile I might have cracked like Humpty Dumpty and Toksvig would have had to perform some of her egg binding skills on my face.

The ladies were brilliant. The show is going to be an absolute corker when rehearsals come to a close and they don’t want to kill themselves anymore.

Afterwards, everyone milled about finishing off the Champagne which festooned the leaning tables, eating the canapés that hadn’t fallen into the rivulet of waiters that had formed around people who clearly hadn’t had dinner (me and a big dude in the corner).

We tried not to look like we were staring at Tamsin, who wafted effortlessly round the room like a West End star who happened to be everyone’s hilarious/endlessly concerned for your welfare best friend. Some people just have an energy about them. At that moment, I couldn’t remember ever having had a more potent ‘famous person’ crush. I thought of my famous crushes – Rick Astley (he still calls; it’s inappropriate – I’m not 9 anymore), Christian Slater (my first bad boy), Kenneth Branagh (very needy), Michael Ball (stole my lipstick), a few others I can’t bear to type – and then stopped. I couldn’t remember any more crushes. That were male. The list turned into one of all the women I admired instead. Wide-eyed, I wondered if that might be something worth a bit more examination, but then thought no more about it and took to helping the poor waiters break the shackles of their crispy cod and paella spoon trays.

It’s a funny thing, human energy, isn’t it? The burn some people can make us feel. When dissected, it has little to do with the way they look or the way they’re dressed, sometimes not even about what they say or do, or even their gender, but just about the energy they emit that we respond to. The inner life they carry about with them. Toksvig has got it. Tammers has got it. I didn’t notice if anyone else had it that night, which pretty much means, in my eyes at least, they didn’t.

On reflection, I think it’s good my personal crushes have gone from pin-up boys to men of (varying levels of) creativity and intellect to brilliant women. Who light up the room. Who emit. Who just ‘are’. It means I’m responding to the best of human stuff; the spirit.

(CUMBERBATCH! Phew. Thought of another one. It’s OK ladies, you’re safe, for now.)

Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown opens for a limited season at the Playhouse Theatre. Previews will begin on the 20th December, with opening night on the 12th January 2015. Sadie can highly recommend it. She can also highly recommend taking one of those little handbag fans to sort yourself out after the feisty numbers.

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Written by Sadie Hasler

Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.