Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw

The Phil Willmott Company

Union Theatre

From 04 January 2018 to 03 February 2018

Review by Howard Loxton

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GBS called this play A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion surely that he is aping Chekhov with a play set in a country home presenting an upper class family of some eccentricity. It was written during the First World War and first presented in 1920 in New York when Chekhov was still comparatively new on British and American stages.

There are similarities in this picture of a society that needs to deal with a changing world but Shaw presents his characters more satirically and is much more clearly political. Shaw’s setting, a house styled in the manner of “a high-pooped ship” is an obvious metaphor (for which designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust have cleverly combined indoors and outdoors in a single set) and here it is littered with bundled sticks of dynamite that not only fit the preoccupations of seaman-turned-inventor Captain Shotover but augur the disaster that is surely predicted.

Former mariner Shotover is one of Shaw’s colourful maverick creations whom James Horne makes lovably eccentric, a critical onlooker as his bohemian daughter Hesione Hushabye hosts a dinner party at which she intends to dissuade her young friend Ellie Dunn and middle-aged magnate “Boss” Mangan from marrying.

Ellie may think she and her father owe their survival to Mangan’s generosity but, against all propriety, admits she is marrying him for his money and future security: for her it is a business arrangement. Like Shakespeare’s Desdemona, she’s lost her heart to a romantic adventurer, though it turns out his tales were invention and he is Hermione’s husband.

Shotover’s younger daughter Ariadne, returning after long absence since fleeing in search of respectability, is married to a minor aristocrat. She firmly believes those who ride are the right people, those who don’t aren’t. She’s followed by a devoted admirer, her husband’s wimpish brother Randall (Toby Spearpoint), who dotes on her.

The first half of the play is light comedy with Shaw making fun of social pretensions and comic misconceptions with Helen Anker gracefully friendly as Hesione, Francesca Burgoyne a rather tart Lady Ariadne and Lianne Harvey’s Ellie quickly shedding her shyness. It builds to revelations from J P Turner’s blustery Mangan about his dealings with Ben Porter’s Mazzini Dunn and then starts to deliver more serious comment.

An intruding burglar (Richard Harfest) who has previous connections with Shotover and Nurse Guinness (Alison Mead) on his household staff represent the lower classes. They may be stereotypical but perhaps that emphasises Shaw’s point.

Although for most of the last century Shaw was thought a contemporary playwright, he was born only two years after Wilde and he was writing for a West End audience that had just been through the Great War. Kitchen-sink drama was far off and the play is much closer to Wilde than to Osborne.

Strangely, given the play’s conclusion, there is no direct mention of the war in the text, though Shotover is trying to invent something to destroy the world’s dynamite but this production puts Mat Betteridge’s smooth Hector Hushabye into uniform, a hint there to pick up.

Director Phil Willmott drives things along at a smart trot; that and I suspect some judicious cuts keep down the playing time but it makes the humour seem clever but a bit artificial, characters don’t have time to think things. Shaw wraps up his ideas in such amusing, wild theatricality that a little more gravity in this presentation might make his message clearer.