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'All About My Mother' gets stage adaptation

There’s plenty of stage shows adapted from movies in London - from musicals "Billy Elliot" and "Dirty Dancing" to the quirky comedy "Elling," taken from a Norwegian film.

Few of the adaptations are as exuberantly theatrical as "All About My Mother," a reworking of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's 1999 film that opened Tuesday at the Old Vic Theatre. But few filmmakers are as theatrical as Almodovar, an auteur who loves emotion and artifice in equal measure.

"All About My Mother," which won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film, is the story of Manuela, a Madrid nurse who returns to Barcelona to confront the ghosts of her past after a traumatic event. Its characters include pregnant nuns, transsexual prostitutes and theatrical divas; its plot contains sex and drugs and three untimely deaths. It is unabashedly emotional, heart-wrenching and warmhearted.

This production marks the first stage adaptation of an Almodovar script in 20 years, and the first ever production of his work in English.

Almodovar's style is so distinctive, his recipe so unique - a dash of melodrama here, a soupcon of social realism there - that there are many ways this stage version could have gone wrong. For the most part, it doesn't.

Playwright Samuel Adamson's adaptation takes liberties with the film's plot but feels true to its spirit. Almodovar - who attended the opening night alongside one of the film's stars, Penelope Cruz - has said the play is "very different from the script I wrote and at the same time it's absolutely faithful to the story, to the spirit and to the characters."

The play opens with a sequence involving an organ transplant, and one of its themes is the resilience of the human heart. It is about love, loss and grief, and survivors regrouping to form new and often unexpected bonds.

Almodovar draws inspiration from the cinematic "women's pictures" of the 1940s and 50s - in particular the backstage melodrama "All About Eve" - and from the lushly emotional plays of Tennessee Williams. Like those works, Almodovar puts the passions, ambitions and relationships of women - and, in this case, men who want to be women - center-stage.

Adamson and director Tom Cairns seize the story's theatricality with both hands. Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" works better as a play-within-a-play than it did as a play-within-a-film, and provides some deliciously theatrical moments. In one scene, we see the actors take a bow, then see it from their point of view, behind the curtain - and we are plunged into a world of backstage drama and bickering.

The play's language does not always match its visual flair - especially in contrast to the chunks of Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca included in the script - and it loses some of its buoyancy in the second half.

The performances help keep it afloat. Almodovar's characters are often extreme, but he always treats them as ordinary folk. This is well understood by a strong cast that includes several generations of British acting talent, from Diana Rigg, majestic as the stage diva Huma Rojo, to Lesley Manville as Manuela to Colin Morgan as Manuela's teenage son, Esteban - one of the few male roles, but at the very heart of the play.

That restraint extends to the showiest role, the flamboyant transsexual Agrado, played with subtlety by Mark Gatiss from comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen. The understated performances provide a cooling British counterpoint to the play's Spanish heat. The resulting temperature, for the most part, is just right.

"All About My Mother" is at London's Old Vic Theatre until Nov. 24.

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