First Night: All About My Mother, Old Vic, London

Move to stage dulls colourful Almodovar
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The Independent Culture

With its salutes to Tennessee Williams and Lorca and its distorted echoes of All About Eve, Pedro Almodovar's superb 1999 movie All About My Mother is steeped in the world of theatre. So it would seem a natural candidate for stage adaptation. Almodovar, hitherto reluctant to allow his films to be converted into plays, has given his blessing to this reworking by Samuel Adamson. But watching Tom Cairns's unatmospheric, drably designed, and insufficiently affecting production at the Old Vic, I began to wonder if the great director (who was present at the first night with Penelope Cruz and Cecilia Roth) might now be having the odd sneaking doubt.

The movie is a wonderfully warm celebration of the spirit of survival in women and would-be women. Adamson has just seen playing Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In Barcelona, where she is seeking the boy's father, Manuela reconstructs her life by becoming a kind of surrogate mother to the lesbian Streetcar star and to a young nun Rosa who has been left pregnant and HIV-positive by Manuela's now junkie and transsexual ex-husband. In Streetcar, the famous "kindness of strangers" is a dubious business, a trick to get Blanche to the asylum; in All About My Mother it's the redeeming genuine article. Likewise, the references to All About Eve are beneficently ironic. Instead of a pushy understudy replacing a star, a loving woman becomes a substitute parent and friend.

Adamson has extended the part of the young, aspiring-author son (Colin Morgan) who talks directly to the audience and remains a periodic posthumous presence in the action until his desire to know the truth about his absent father is appeased at the end. We also get a staggered stand-up routine from the silicone-enhanced transsexual Agrado (here given a Welsh lilt and bags of combative charm by Mark Gatiss). Her declaration that "you are more authentic, the more you resemble the dream you have of yourself" sums up the play's philosophy that true happiness may consist in creating alternative realities (whether it be a body or a family unit). What is badly missing here, though, is the strong current of love and mutual concern that passes between the women in the film. Lesley Manville fails to communicate the weight of grief in the bereaved Manuela and never develops much of an emotional bond with either the actress (Diana Rigg who is fine at the grande dame bitchiness, less convincing at the passion) or the nun (a dire Joanne Froggatt). The generous spirit of the original has turned into something shriller and more conventionally "theatrical". Manuela allows her son's heart to be transplanted and is rewarded. Almodovar permitted his film to be transplanted – with (I fear) less gratifying results.