Heartbreak House – July 2012

8/10  (4th Preview)

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Clifford

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th July 2012

I’d seen Heartbreak House once before, with Rex Harrison as Captain Shotover, and found it deadly dull, so I had no great hopes for this production despite the excellent casting. I was delighted when the laughs came early and came often, and despite the ‘strange’ bits towards the end of each half, I found the production very light and enjoyable, with tremendous performances from everyone. I suspect the director chose to minimise the heavy political references and make this more of a Wildean romp through the dottiness of the British middle classes; if so, it was a good choice, which allowed the humour to come through and made for a much more accessible and enjoyable production.

The set was wonderful. The room used in the first acts had a long back wall, angled slightly, with a central tall window and two sets of double doors out to the garden on either side. At the far left was another door to the Captain’s secret stash of rum, while the door to the rest of the house was at the other end of the wall, and at right angles to it. A small corridor space away was another door which led to the front of the house.

The room was furnished appropriately for the time, though with a Bohemian flavour. The floorboards were slightly purple (or was that just the lighting?) and laid diagonally. They covered a large square area, with a smaller square off to the left for the Captain’s rum door, and these squares were surrounded by a glossy black area with a few leaves scattered here and there; this became the garden area in the final act. The fireplace was front and centre, with side seats and fire irons, and there were chairs and sofas, chests for tables, and a large drawing table under the central window with a Captain’s chair where Shotover did his design work from time to time.

For the final scene, the wall rotated and we lost the doors on either side. The garden area had a drinks trolley thoughtfully provided in front of the terrace, along with several benches and chairs. To the sides were panels which looked ivy-covered, and above all this were the upper windows of the house, lit during the night time scenes. To the left of the stage was a spot light, which may have been part of the stage lighting, or could even have been the Captain’s idea of garden illumination, such was the bohemian nature of the family. The costumes were all period, and absolutely lovely, especially Hesione’s evening dress.

I was reminded of many other plays and styles during the evening. Wilde obviously, especially in the bright, clever things said by the Hushabyes, Lady Utterwood and Randall Utterwood. The preening of the latter and Hector Hushabye, making full use of the imaginary mirror above the fireplace, was very funny, and also reminiscent of some of Wilde’s characters. Othello was mentioned several times within the dialogue, and King Lear had obvious echoes, with the elderly man and his two ‘dangerous’ daughters. And, written only a few years later, the shambolic treatment of invited guests reminded me strongly of Hay Fever. At least we got to know who was who with the staggered arrivals and repeated introductions, a very useful technique. And with such good characterisations, I found I engaged with the people and the situation much more readily than any tub-thumping production could manage. Derek Jacobi was splendid as Captain Shotover, but the whole cast were magnificent, and as this was only the fourth performance I would expect them to be even better in a short while. The only negatives tonight were some chatter from behind and two short bursts of thunderous rain on the roof which made the dialogue hard to hear, even though the actors upped the volume as much as they could. I hope we get quieter weather next time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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