Union Theatre, London
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Phil Willmott
George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, stylistically inspired by Anton Chekhov, was first performed in 1920. Set on the brink of the First World War, its message about the very real danger of political indifference chimes with today’s audience.
The story plays out across a single evening; Hesione Hushabye the lady of the namesake house has invited Ellie Dunn, her father and her fiancé to dinner, with Hushabye’s sister’s unexpected arrival further complicating the dynamics. Refreshingly, the dinner is not the focal point. Rather, the real draw is the mix of guests plucked from a wide cross-section of society – there is a capitalist, a bohemian, an aristocrat, the poverty-stricken and more – with what should give rise to intriguing interactions.
The audience is privy to several social commentaries embedded in a narrative that revolves around each character’s own desires and selfish motives. We see a great deal of talk about the role of women – both in the home and wider society. There’s also some dissection of society’s composition and differences between the rich and the poor, bohemians and puritans, politically engaged and politically indifferent.
However, Shaw’s script takes a while to get going and it’s only towards the end of the second act that the social commentary swells to a crescendo, by which point it’s all feeling a little too contrived.
Nonetheless Wilmott has a solid cast working with this challenging script. JP Turner’s Boss Mangan is appropriately brash, Ben Porter makes for an endearing Mazzini Dunn and Mat Betteridge’s Hector Hushabye is a commanding presence. Although James Horne’s portrayal of the simultaneously confused and shrewd Captain Shotover might seem slightly excessive at the outset, his gradual softening heightens the intrigue, making this a performance to watch. But Helen Anker’s standout performance as the effervescent Hesione Hushabye is the one to leave an imprint after the figurative curtain falls.
The set design (Justin Williams and Johnny Rust) excels. Nestled in an archway beneath train tracks, the Union Theatre makes an ideal home for Heartbreak House. The result is a house façade that mirrors the nautical theme that runs throughout. The set stretches upwards, providing a clever birds nest-esque nook for Captain Shotover, lending further weight to his frequent godlike interjections into the conversations taking place below. Moreover, the overhead rumble of passing trains could pass for crashing waves, nicely complementing Philip Matejschuk’s sound design.
Much is packed into one evening and the heartbreak alluded to in the title is cleverly determined to be both of conventional and unconventional forms. Yet the play is ultimately held back by the playwright’s desire to say something of importance, rather than an actual delivery of a narrative via well-formed characters who interact with authenticity.
Ultimately though, with a message that is as relevant today as it was almost a hundred years ago, Heartbreak House remains a story worth retelling.
Runs until 3rd February
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Scott Rylander