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Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw
Chichester Festival Theatre production
Chichester Festival Theatre

Fiona Button, Ronald Pickup, George Layton, Maroussia Frank Credit: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover
Ronald Pickup as Mazzina Dunn Credit: Johan Persson

Shaw’s play was conceived just before the First World War and written just before its end, and the picture on the front cover of the programme tells it all: a beautiful girl wearing blinkers can see nothing on either side, only concerned with her own path in life disregarding all others. The play is a house filled with like-minded characters written almost in one-dimensional style.

Beautifully presented, Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set shows an impressive mansion façade behind a conservatory referred to as ‘the poop’ (the only reference to the owner’s past profession) surrounded by flooring of shiny black marble emphasising their self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Costumes are lavish, and Jason Carr’s music an evocative addition to the mood, but sadly this is not one of Chichester’s best productions and very probably Shaw’s fault, his verbosity and witticisms overshadowing what he was really trying to say.

Part comedy, part impending tragedy, part period drama—and very long, at times tedium begins to set in watching these vacuous selfish characters and the production only comes to life with the appearances of Derek Jacobi’s Captain Shotover, an immensely enjoyable interpretation of an irascible, eccentric old sea captain / inventor and the only one to finally be revealed as having feelings of remorse for his previous actions.

Taking place in the house of bohemian hostess Hesione Hushabye, the plot—if plot there be—centres around Fiona Button’s Ellie Dunn, determined to marry the brutish Boss Mangan (Trevor Cooper) to get back the money he had swindled from her father (a very underused Ronald Pickup). She really is in love with the flamboyant, narcissistic husband of the manipulative and snobbish Lady Utterwood (Sara Stewart) who in turn is idolised by the foolishly foppish brother-in-law Randall Utterwood (Jo Stone-Fewings). The complicated relationships, together with the fact that not one of them is as first perceived, adds nothing to comprehension, or interest.

Really an ensemble piece, but there is some very welcome comedy from George Layton’s Billy Dunn, a burglar who makes sure he is caught so he can talk his way into extracting money from his victims, and Maroussia Frank’s Nurse Guinness, discovered to be Billy’s wife, has some amusing lines, delivered dead-pan, but Jacobi is the one who brought the punters in and Jacobi is the one they will remember, his comedy of course, but also his moving tete-a-tete with Ellie urging her to be brave and marry for love not for money.

Shaw, we are told, was bitterly angry at the futile existence of those who were content to fritter their lives away on trivialities and self-indulgence while a war was raging in Europe and people on both sides were dying a useless death, but none of the anger comes through. At the end we ought to feel outrage and disgust at their selfish disregard for the lives of others but, in spite of the excellence of the performers, we can only experience exasperation, as uninterested in their lives as they are in others'.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor