Screen-to-stage adaptations take a serious leap forward with “All About My Mother.” Playwright Samuel Adamson jettisons slavish fidelity to every movie moment in favor of a theatrically poetic approach to Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning movie. In what’s less an adaptation than a reimagining, the territory remains the same, but the aspect is new, as if seeing the work in different colors. The result is more subdued and less all-encompassing, but the rare mix of comedy, tragedy and hope is frequently newly potent.
Despite its web of complex characters in multiple locations and a story that resonates through past and future events, “All About My Mother” is the most precisely theatrical of Almodovar’s movies. Not only is much of it set onstage and backstage, the mechanics motoring the plot and most of the characters — a mother who tells little white lies, a transsexual father, several actors, transvestites and a pregnant nun — are fascinatingly linked by the business of performing.
More than in the movie, the play lives up to its title by keeping 17-year-old son Esteban (a raw but measured Colin Morgan) within the action as observer and commentator. This is a neat conceit by Adamson considering that Esteban is actually killed in a car accident as he attempts to get the autograph of the famous actress Huma Rojo (Diana Rigg) very near the beginning of the action.
Esteban leaves behind a diary in which he wrote that he wanted to find out “all about my father,” whom he never met. After reading this, his distressed but pragmatic mother Manuela (Lesley Manville) dedicates herself to tracking Esteban’s father down.
Moving to Barcelona, the father’s last known address, she re-encounters her long-lost best friend Agrado (Mark Gatiss), now a more than usually feisty transsexual. Together, they become entwined with a host of characters. Their tragicomic, contingent lives don’t so much explore as explode definitions of friendship, femininity and motherhood.
Adamson’s strongest suit is his harnessing of the play(s)-within-the-play. He builds upon the plot mechanics that reflect and refract ideas from “All About Eve,” one of the most famous movies about acting and theater. In addition, he deftly weaves Federico Garcia Lorca’s theatrical lament “Blood Wedding” into the material.
Most of all, he expands upon the movie’s use of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and its famous line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It’s that sentiment that defines the wholly unlikely but triumphantly convincing relationships at the center of “All About My Mother.”
The stage version allows auds to witness onstage and backstage activity with increased immediacy. That ranges from watching actors from behind as they take a curtain call to seeing them going frantic in a dressing room as Huma’s bad-tempered lover Nina (Charlotte Randle) is too strung-out to go on.
That paves the way for the first act climax as Manuela steps literally into Nina’s shoes to play the pregnant Stella in “Streetcar.” At the moment of the sudden onset of Stella’s labor, Esteban appears to Manuela in a vision. Her resultant collapse is an incandescent moment that ignites and unites source material, the play and the play-within-the-play and justifies the adaptation.
Throughout the evening, Hildegard Bechtler’s walls and curtains constantly fly in and out, redefining the space with elegant simplicity. The restraint in the deliberately slow staging of the aftermath of Esteban’s death is eerily affecting. Yet not everything about the production is as felicitous.
Helmer Tom Cairns and lighting designer Bruno Poet link the scenes with enviable liquidity. But the necessity of switching from location to location becalms what in the film was more engagingly vigorous. The over-elaborate plotting also sometimes creates a sense of detachment that the production only intermittently conquers.
That is counterbalanced, however, by regular splashes of laugh-aloud humor. Both Rigg and auds clearly relish hearing her in diva-mode musing, “I haven’t sucked cock in 40 years.”
Gatiss, formerly of comedy outfit “The League of Gentlemen,” brings superbly engaging zest to the juicy role of seen-it-all, done-them-all transsexual whore Agrado. His outer toughness momentarily destroyed by sudden pain silences the auditorium.
His perfectly poised energies are matched by Manville’s Manuela whose trim, neat frame seems to contradict her seemingly infinite capacity for expressing stretched tension. That the maelstrom of emotions that spin from Manuela’s generosity in adversity finally coalesce into something truly compassionate is a tribute as much to her performance as to Almodovar and Adamson’s writing.