05 September 2007: Evening Standard

Old Vic's Mother Superior

No more extraordinary, sexually charged or surreal encounter can ever have been played upon the Old Vic stage. It is contained within the climactic minutes of Samuel Adamson's superb recreation of Pedro Almodóvar's film All About My Mother, an adaptation that improves upon the famous original.

At first it sounds and looks as if the melodramatics of soap opera rule, as if the heights of campery are gleefully to be scaled. Yet what a sad, poignant message underscores Almodóvar's dark comedy, dominated by love, loss and family secrets, by women banding together to withstand men who care too little and do too much damage.

Lola, Michael Shaeffer's transvestite male, big-bosomed, in a gleaming black dress and ash-blonde wig, faces up to home truths. These have arrived in the questing form of Lesley Manville's Manuela, who cares for his latest offspring, born to the distinctly fallen and now dead nun, Sister Rosa.

Standing on the sidelines is Lola's buddy, Mark Gattis's hilarious Agrado, fine mistress of inventively foul-mouthed comedy and a transsexual who boasts female breasts and short skirts together with a Welsh accent and a penis that has been spared the surgeon's knife.

It is Adamson's brilliant conceit that Manuela's teenage son, Esteban, killed in a road accident while pursuing the car that contains Diana Rigg's sacred monster of a great, lesbian actress in another blonde wig, should not vanish from the scene, as he does in Almodvar's film. Instead, played with jaunty pathos by this year's outstanding theatrical discovery, Colin Morgan, he haunts the play and his mother to devastating emotional effect.

Posthumously he broods over becoming a writer and asserts his right to discover "all about my father". It is the last, hard discovery of All About My Mother that Esteban's father turns out to be dying of Aids and someone who has remained true to nothing and no one.

Tom Cairns's oddly old-fashioned production is made ponderous by designer Hildegard Bechtler's attempts to replicate the film's topographical variety, as the action moves with Miss Manville's suitably intense but slightly pallid Manuela to Barcelona, accompanied by fussy scene changes and film projections.

Thanks, however, to Adamson's elegant reworkings and clarifications of Almodóvar's film script, All About My Mother opens eyes and minds to an off-centre Spain of outsiders and rebels, refracted through Almodóvar's gay and camp sensibility.

Manuela, determined to find Esteban's father, returns to post-Franco, liberal Barcelona. Here sexual freedom is taken in the large, difficult doses of transsexuality and transvestism. Heroin and Aids work their destructive magic. Joanne Froggatt's preposterously cockney Sister Rosa, daughter of Eleanor Bron's sad grande dame, has sexually succumbed to a transvestite male. The influence of Hollywood cinema - All About Eve and John Cassavetes's 1977 film Opening Night - together with Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire - permeates the action.

The differences and similarities between real life and life fashioned by playwrights loom large. As the great actress Huma Rojo, who is seen smouldering behind the scenes and on stage playing Williams's thirtysomething Blanche DuBois, the ever-attractive but over-60 Dame Diana inevitably strains credulity. Her toughness is also at disconcerting odds with the butterflyish Blanche. She does, though, beautifully convey the angry imperiousness of the older woman, sexually in thrall to a druggy sidekick, Charlotte Randle's Nina. Huma, like all Almodóvar's women here, proves a valiant life enhancer.

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