Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw

This BBC Shaw Collection offers a reminder of just how versatile a playwright GBS was. This particular play, with echoes of Shakespeare and premonitions of Ayckbourn, was a Play for Today first screened in 1977.

Heartbreak House is an eccentric comedy about love with some biting commentary about social injustice not too far below the surface.

The property itself is a house almost as enchanted as Prospero's Island and presided over by an elderly former seaman Captain Shotover. He is played by John Gielgud looking more garden gnome-like than nautical.

On one night, this enclosed world welcomes a house full of eccentric visitors who happily chat away about life, the universe and everything, while falling madly in love with each other in turn, regardless of age or suitability.

Siân Phillips plays Hesione Hushabye, Shotover's highly intelligent daughter who is responsible for much of the trouble that ensues. She has invited the sweet Ellie Dunn, played by a very young Lesley Anne Down, to stay, along with ineffectual father Dunn (Richard Pearson),

The overall design is Pre-Raphaelite, which both sets the scene for the sometimes wordy discussions about the way that lives should be lived and allows these two ladies to model as beauties portrayed by Rosetti or Millais.

The play has much to commend it, in particular one of drama's most perfect lines "He is my husband" as Hesione is introduced to her delighted young friend's secret love. This is the exceedingly handsome ladykiller Hector (Daniel Massey), who might be the model for Ayckbourn's Norman of Conquests fame, with his unwanted ability to snare every lady whom he meets.

The Bohemian household is completed by Hesione's precious sister from overseas Lady Utterword, played by Barbara Murray, and Ellie's lugubrious fiancé, the odious, Mammon-worshipping, money-man, Mangan (David Waller).

The group spend the evening posturing and speechifying until a Zeppelin comes along and ends their entertainment in the most explosive fashion.

This well-cast production from Cedric Messina balances light comedy with serious discussion to great effect. It also contains a series of outstanding performances led by Gielgud and Mesdames Phillips and Down.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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