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A CurtainUp London Review
All About My Mother
Like the film, this is a humane elegy to maternal love which endures pain, death and grief, and follows in the tradition of strong female characters in Spanish drama. The fact that some of these strong females also used to be men is besides the point of their compassionate heroism.
The plot follows a bereaved, single mother's search for the father of her son in the wake of a tragic accident. Manuela (Lesley Manville) undertakes a journey in homage to her son's unfulfilled wish to know his father. This takes her to Barcelona, towards a confrontation with her buried past and to a series of idiosyncratic human encounters. One such encounter is with a famous, ageing stage diva Huma Rojo (Diana Rigg), who is hopelessly in thrall to her ballsy, drug-addled lover Nina (Charlotte Randle). Also featuring in Manuela's quest is Agrado, a transvestite with a loving heart and a wicked tongue (affectionately played with a lilting Welsh accent by Mark Gatiss), a young, compassionate nun Rosa (Joanne Froggatt) and the elusive transsexual Lola (Michael Schaeffer).
Full of theatrical references and literary characters with paradigmatic significance, it is easy to see why the film offers such suitable fodder for the stage. Lorca, Tennessee Williams and Joseph L. Mankiewicz all ground the story with a sense of artistic ancestry.
In general, the transition to the theatre is managed capably in the hands of Tom Cairns' performance-focussed direction. In fact, as this is a play about characters first and foremost, the strong cast does full justice to the story. Lesley Manville is particularly convincing with her steely fortitude in the face of adversity and absurdity. Moreover, the casting of Diana Rigg as a celebrated actress nicely dovetails the audience's consciousness of reality. It seems, for example, entirely plausible to see Diana Rigg's magnified face gracing a billboard, or her starring in the onstage snippets of Huma's touring production of "A Streetcar Named Desire". Samuel Adamson's adaptation is intelligent and naturalistic, and sacrifices neither the moving force nor the emotional subtlety of the original.
Apart from names, there is little sense that the play is set in Spain. Also, the design undermines the enterprise somewhat. The glossy, reflective floor adds visual emphasis to the fact that the audience are witnessing a performance rather than reality. The front of the stage is extended but unused, with a stylish but distancing effect. This weakens what is most unique to theatre and what ought to be a strong advantage: the live immediacy of the acting.
This production is expertly handled and excellent within itself although ultimately safe and unchallenging. In translating a great film, some things are lost and not all that much is gained. And without an artistic raison d'être, you can't help but ask why they should venture upon this adaptation, except for ticket sales. In spite of these cynical considerations, Pedro Almodovar's empathetic genius is always a joy to behold in any medium.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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