‘This is not your classic all singing, all dancing West End musical,’ says Episodes and Green Wing star Tamsin Greig. ‘It’s a wonderfully unexpected Toyota Prius hybrid.’
And one that has driven the show – based on Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 movie – to critical success. ‘It’s certainly something different and original!’ adds Tamsin’s co-star Haydn Gwynne, who has starred in Richard III with Kevin Spacey and The Audience with Helen Mirren.
Both actresses look remarkably calm and relaxed as they chat backstage just an hour before curtain up. But then they have already completed 112 sold out performances.
Tamsin takes the lead role of Pepa in the show and has learnt how to sing professionally for the first time – there’s a live band on stage with her every night.
‘It was something I thought I’d never do – but here I am!’ she says. ‘It was my husband who persuaded me to take it on. I was worried about how much I’d have to practice. But he said if I didn’t do it then I couldn’t tell the children off if they didn’t do their homework.’
Haydn, who is a musical veteran having starred in Billy Elliot both on Broadway and in the West End, admits to not warning Tamsin about what was to come: ‘She’d already signed so it was too late! But I knew Tamsin had no idea how hard it would be. Singing eight shows a week, week in week out is really draining.’
‘It was a bit like training for the marathon,’ adds Tamsin wryly. ‘When you’re no Mo Farrah.’ So what makes this musical comedy, about a group of women whose lives appear to be unraveling, so entertaining?
‘I think a lot of us – including me and other women who are mother’s, wives, friends and carers for older elatives – feel as if we’re constantly clinging by our fingernails to the precipice’, says Haydn.
‘That’s why women in particular respond to the show’s title. They hear ‘woman’ and then ‘nervous breakdown’ and they think – that’s me! Our lives are so busy now that if just one thing goes wrong, everything comes tumbling down.’
Tamsin agrees but argues it’s not just women who suffer: ‘All people walk a very fine line between sanity and insanity! There are so many balls to juggle and plates to spin.’
The two leads are a fine example of this, as both have families and a full time career. Tamsin, who first found success playing Debbie Aldridge in The Archers, has three children between 10 and 16 with her husband Richard who is also an actor. Haydn who lives with her partner Jason, a psychotherapist, and their two sons says: ‘Obviously both our husbands HAD to see the show!’
‘But our children have seen it too,’ adds Tamsin. ‘When my 10-year-old daughter saw it for the first time she loved it and I’ve noticed a lot of women coming with their daughters. It prompts this wonderful conversation between the different generations. The daughters tend to say ‘ahhh so THAT’S what it feels like for you’.’
‘I asked my daughter what she thought it was about and she said ‘All these women are just trying to understand what is happening and why everything has to be so hard.” In fact that’s not a bad summary. The show is centered around Tamsin’s character Pepa, whose world unravels when her unfaithful lover leaves her. Then she meets his wife Lucia (played by Haydn), his new girlfriend, and his son.
‘What it’s really about,’ says Tamsin, ‘is bad love – love that’s not going to work.’
There’s Pepa who is obsessed with a man who can’t remain faithful to her. Her best friend Candela who is young and beautiful but has fallen in love with someone unsuitable (who also happens to be a terrorist). Plus a woman who can’t let go of the husband who’s divorced her. ‘I think that’s what we all identify with – how hard it is to move on from heartbreak but that we do all have the choice to do so,’ adds Tamsin.
Another important aspect of the show is how women deal with ageing and becoming, as Haydn sings about at one point, ‘invisible’ to men
‘The irony is I’m probably the most visible character in the show as I wear the most outrageous outfits,’ says Haydn. ‘But I do find it a fact of life that no matter who you are, as a woman, you’re constantly assessed on your looks and your allure. So as you get older, you naturally fear becoming less sexually attractive. ‘My advice is to think of the benefits! Even when I was younger I found that kind of sexual attention rather irritating. When you’re not judged by your looks you can surprise people by other aspects of your personality.’
Tamsin agrees and wishes more women, like Haydn, would be bold enough to stand up and say ‘This is how I look at this age and I’m fine with that.’ ‘It’s empowering to embrace where you are in life,’ she says.
Asked for the advice they’d give their younger selves both are equally inspiring. Tamsin says: ‘My husband told me once that life is not lived forward like you’re in a car or a train. Life is like being in a rowing boat. All you can see is what you’re leaving behind so you think ‘wow, look at what we’ve been through.’ You don’t know what’s coming up so you just keep pulling the oars.’
As for Haydn she simply says ‘I’d tell myself bloody hell girl enjoy it!’ And when you see her on stage it looks like she really is.
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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is on at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, London. WC2N 5DE