From drying on stage to meeting an inspirational director via singing at the gym, it’s been an eclectic week for Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown’s Anna Skellern.
Hiding under the duvet of a double bed, I’m wheeled onto the stage by two men. The band starts, the spotlight hits me, my cue arrives… and NOTHING comes out of my mouth.
My mind is racing for the words. What are the words? Sheer terror courses through my body. I look to the wings where my understudy hovers, graciously mouthing lyrics to me. Finally, I can make some of them out, so I turn to the audience and start to sing but my voice catches and – again – NOTHING comes out of my mouth. I close my eyes momentarily, thinking this is so awful it must be a dream. But when I open them, I am still there, centre stage at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End.
I wish I could say it was a dream, but it wasn’t. It was our dress rehearsal the night before we opened. I hadn’t realised how terrified I was of my song, the five minute goliath, Model Behaviour. It’s a patter song – think I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General – played at 186 beats per minute, and for all five of those minutes I’m rapidly singing whilst running all over the stage through a number of scenes and costume changes.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken advice from my fellow cast mate and stellar singer, Willemijn Verkaik and sung the song whilst running on the treadmill. It’s given me the confidence to push myself to the point where I’m feeling quite light-headed and know that I won’t faint. But even though I’m getting used to the feeling of not having much oxygen in my system, it’s still rather scary.
My huge relief after the song means that the rest of the show feels relatively easy. Straight afterwards there’s a particularly funny sequence where I enter Pepa’s (Tamsin Greig’s) flat in a right old state having just found out the best shag of my life is actually a terrorist. Having an audience for the dress rehearsal really helped with our timing: comedy always needs an audience. It’s with them that you can start fine-tuning your most detailed work, like knowing when a half second pause or a head turn will make something funnier. But to be honest, I was more preoccupied with basic concerns like how not to fall off the stage or accidentally flash my bottom.
Our ingenious set is sleek, white and curvy with two levels connected by a spiral staircase. White walls create the perfect backdrop for the brightly coloured lighting scheme that is splashed all over them, instantly evoking Pedro Almodóvar’s palette and 1980s Madrid. Bright colours are very important to Almodóvar and to this time in Spanish history as it emerged from the oppression and darkness of Francoism. It permeated every area of society, even clothing. In Franco’s conservative world, women would often spend half their life wearing black mourning clothes, like Almodóvar’s mother who was made to wear black well into her 30s.
After the dress rehearsal we are honoured to have Almodóvar come and watch the show. This time I swallow my nerves and somehow it works. We get through the show and afterwards, in our dressing rooms, Almodóvar is warm and complimentary. Overcoming my initial awe at standing in front of one of cinema’s greats we speak about my character, Candela.
I was already quite enamoured with the name Candela. Before the show I had listened to the song Candela, which I saw some members of the Buena Vista Social Club perform on Christmas Day a few years ago in Havana. Through my research I had found that apart from meaning ‘light’, Candela also has quite intense sexual connotations. Pedro explained that the name Candela meant so much more than that; it was a very special name in Spanish and was what the gypsies – which he wonderfully pronounced with a ‘g’ as in game – referred to as ‘the fire within’.
With that one simple note my entire performance changed. The sign of a truly great director. So with a week of previews ahead and Almodóvar’s approval things are looking up!