Kevin Spacey’s reign at the Old Vic has not been universally successful, and I was dubious as to the merits of adaptation of a tricky Almodovar film. Firstly, how could the Spanish-ness of the film, All About My Mother, be captured on the most venerable of British stages? Secondly, how could such a visually arresting and cinematic entity be transferred to the stage at all? Most importantly though, what would a stage adaptation of a beloved and lauded film bring to the piece, was it just a cynical ploy to deliver a product that the audience would already be familiar with?
All these points were answered in the negative by Tom Cairns’s production, and Samuel Adamson’s fine version of the story. The cast are also generally top rate, with Lesley Manville leading the company as the grieving mother Manuela, searching for the long estranged (and transsexual) father of her recently deceased teenage son, but also drawn to the celebrated actress who played a key role in his death (he crossed the road in order to get an autograph, and was hit by a car, unknown to the her). The Spanish flavour is retained, but given a British bent, perhaps the emotions are slightly more restrained than in the excellent film. The plot of the film has been closely followed, but with several adaptations necessary due to the nature of the stage versus screen, and Adamson gives us a perfectly natural British vocabulary (and the cast a range of accents). As for the point of the stage version, it is simply that this is a great story, told with pathos and skill by the actors, that works well onstage. No other justification is needed, but this is an artistic endeavour, not a cynical reproduction like some other plays and especially musicals that I could mention.
The story involves Manuela leaving Madrid for Barcelona where she looks for her ex husband (the junkie transsexual) and meets up with an old friend, Agrado, a transsexual prostitute (beautifully played with comic gusto, but also great emotional intelligence towards the end by Mark Gatiss, proving him to be a worthy stage actor and a great fabricator of the Welsh accent). Through Agrado, Manuela meets an outreach worker, a nun, Sister Rosa, who she eventually takes in and cares for (due to illness and an un nun like pregnancy), unable to repress her maternal instinct. She also becomes involved with Huma Rojo, a famous actress, played by Dame Dina Rigg. Rigg plays the tough but nice lesbian actress well; it almost like no acting is taking place, just Rigg being a slightly grand but likeable actor.
The second act is where the play really came together for me, I enjoyed the first act, but knowing the story well it felt slightly flat at times (simply through familiarity). In the second act, when characters and situations are all already established and allowed to grow, the emotional heart became clear. The perseverance of these women, despite deaths and diseases, the fact that life will endure even with sorrow. The strength of women, their crucial role in creating and running society, is the overarching theme. There are a couple of interesting features that the play delivers differently than on screen. Here we have Manuela’s son, Esteban (excellent Colin Morgan, so wonderful in Vernon God Little down the road at the Young Vic recently), appearing several times during the course of the play (after his early death), to speak to characters or sometimes directly to the audience. This underscores the point of the, not only the title, but the underlying grief and loss that drives Manuela. Also, when Agrado announces the cancellation of a performance A Streetcar Names Desire (the play that Huma is starring in), it’s a direct announcement to a real audience, not a fake on screen audience. In fact Agrado makes the announcement twice, one more flat and monotone and the second revealing the real emotions of the evening. Agroado then begins to entertain the audience with tales of his/her life. I think that the immediacy and personal nature of the performance here is far more powerful than the same moment on film.
The set by Hildegard Bechtler is an impressive entity, mostly comprising of atmospheric 1960’s style wallpaper. But it also includes spinning walls and a stage within a stage at one point. The production flows very well, despite several changes of atmosphere and pace, that in less deftly directed shows would creak. All About My Mother is also a film that was all about the theatre in a way, certainly about acting in general, so by the end I concluded that it was the perfect choice for a stage adaptation. Cairns, Adamson (and Almodovar), and their first rate cast have created a very enjoyable, even moving, evening out.
Best Line on the London stage so far this year:
Nina an actress, to Manuela about Huma, her lover (aka Dame Dina Rigg): ‘She’s always looking for fresh muff’.