Entertainment & Arts

Tamsin Greig: Giving voice to a Nervous Breakdown

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Media captionTamsin Greig: "My tongue is too big for singing"

Tamsin Greig is about to make her musical theatre debut in London's West End in a musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar's Oscar-nominated film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

The Episodes star, whose West End credits include Jumpy and The Little Dog Laughed, plays Pepa in the comedy, which focuses on the lives of a group of female friends in Madrid.

She tells BBC arts correspondent Tim Masters how she discovered her singing voice.

One review for Jumpy says you played a "woman on the verge of a breakdown". How much was Jumpy a preparation for this?

Someone said to me that life is not lived forwards like you're in a car or a train. Life is lived backwards like you're in a rowing boat and all you do is pull the oars and you go into your future and things float past. We never know what's ahead.

Maybe Jumpy was a very good training ground telling the story of someone who is disintegrating before your very eyes, but you know there is a buoyancy of hope. I think there are similar elements in this story but the script that Jeffrey Lane has put together from the film is so funny and tight and comedically assured.

How have the singing lessons been?

They have been so exciting and interesting and revealing. It turns out that I have a strong core voice and a massive tongue that doesn't help. Who knew? It's not something I'm proud of. We've spent most of our time trying to get my massive tongue out of the way because it reduces the place where the sound is formed.

Image copyright Jay Brooks
Image caption Tamsin Greig (centre) is best known for her TV work such as Episodes and Green Wing

Are you a fan of musicals?

I really love seeing musicals because I sit there thinking I could never do that. What they do is so extraordinary. It's a whole career of expression and calibrating and modifying - it takes a whole lifetime.

I'm calling [Women on the Verge] a play with music, which is how I get through it. I'm doing a different thing. I come to it from an actor's perspective rather than a singer's. The approach is different. Hopefully the sound is not too different.

How are you finding the character of Pepa?

Pepa is an amazing human being who has the heart of a lioness and the faithfulness of a swan. But the confusion of a rat in a lab - running around trying to understand the fault line in her experience of life. She's clever and funny and heartbreaking and has an extraordinary yearning about her.

The film came out in 1988. What is it about the story that you think will attract audiences today?

The title is exposing and misleading. It's also about how all people are involved in what happens when women come to a crisis point. It's not a show for women. It happens to be about a group of women and a lot of other men as well. It's a story that would appeal to anybody because we are all on the verge of potential disintegration. We're all just walking a very narrow line between normality and insanity.

West End musicals have had mixed fortunes recently. Have you been checking out the competition?

I did go and see [Kinks musical] Sunny Afternoon at the Hampstead Theatre before it transferred. It was a magnificent night in the theatre, I sat there thinking I could never do that. I'd love to get to see Made in Dagenham because Gemma Arterton is fantastic.

I tend not to get into the business of competing or comparing. As a friend of mine said to me, "Compare and despair" - because whatever you do you're going to end up elated or destroyed.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown will open at London's Playhouse Theatre on 12 January 2015, with previews from 16 December 2014.

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