All About My Mother

Published April 17, 2008

Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish language film Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) won a plethora of awards on its release in 1999. In this new stage adaptation for the Old Vic – the first time Almodóvar has allowed one of his films to be adapted for the English stage – Samuel Adamson has taken the eclectic assortment of characters and the unlikely storyline and created a complex play which has at its heart the moving story of one woman’s grief and pain. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience.

Manuela (Lesley Manville) is a nurse and single mother living in Madrid with her aspiring playwright son, Esteban. It is his 17th birthday, and Esteban is desperate to find out about his father, of whom Manuela has never spoken. After a birthday outing to see his favourite actress, Huma Rojo, playing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Esteban is knocked down by a car and killed.

Armed with her son’s diary, which reveals Esteban’s fundamental need to know his father, a grieving Manuela faces her past and goes to Barcelona to find Lola, her transvestite former husband and Esteban’s father, to in some way fulfil her son’s quest and come to terms with his death. In doing so she brings together a vastly different set of women, who all come to rely on Manuela and provide her, in turn, with the family unit she has lost.

The League Of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss is an endearing and brashly comic Agrado, the transvestite prostitute and stand up comedian who welcomes his long-lost friend Manuela. Diana Rigg plays Huma, the dour actress so admired by Esteban who, due to her tumultuous relationship with junkie lover and co-star Nina Cruz (Charlotte Randle), inadvertently caused his death. Joanne Froggatt completes the eclectic trio as a naïve young nun who looks to Manuela for desperate support after she repeats history with Lola, with tragic consequences.

Tom Cairns’s direction of Adamson’s cleverly structured play blurs fiction and reality. When we first meet Manuela she is acting out the grieving mother for her doctor-colleagues to practise asking the bereaved to agree to organ donation; soon, this becomes her reality. Later, the Old Vic audience becomes the audience for Streetcar, as Huma and company perform on stage; then we are the voyeurs to the turmoil backstage. And throughout the play the deceased Esteban commentates on his mother’s journey, which reflects the imagined play that he writes for her.

This, combined with a fine cast – with a moving and gripping central performance from Manville – Hildegard Bechtler’s impressive, filmic design and artful staging make this a sophisticated production of a multi-layered new play.

CB