George Bernard Shawr
Watford Palace Theatre
At times, Heartbreak House could be seen as a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd but director Indhu Rubasingham has a taste for taking absurdity a little too far with her preference for heavily stylised acting. Rather than trust Shaw's script, she asks her actors to overdo things and, as a result, too many become caricatures.
The determinedly anti-war and anti-capitalist Heartbreak House was first seen in 1920, just after the war to end all wars, and was reputedly the writer's favourite of his own canon of plays. The quality of this Shavian comedy shines through the staging and, with political and social aperçus abounding, ensures that this proves an enjoyable outing.
The star of the evening, after a slightly nervous start, is the actor who is allowed to play her part most naturally. Laura Elphinstone is Ellie, a young woman whose honour demands that she marry a wealthy, cheerless and much older man, Boss Mangan,. She is helped in her decisiveness by the fact that the man whom she loves is hilariously revealed to be unavailable.
Ellie mixes wry detachment with a passion for her pre-feminist beliefs and as a result comes across as thoroughly modern in her views.
Her betrothed, Martin Turner's raucously Australian Mangan, is a fraud in every sense but nobody seems too concerned until the moralistic finale. Strangely, his asset-stripping activities sound as if they are drawn from the news today, since his is just the kind of Private Equity house that is incurring the wrath of the Unions almost daily at the moment.
Dick Bird has designed Captain Shotover's house as a cross between a ship's metal-lined bridge and a conventional home. There, Shaw's alter ego, judging by the facial hair, rules the roost, making wild statements for the sheer hell of it and testing out the guests whom his generous daughter Hesione invites by the boatload.
Amongst some spiritual hocus-pocus and rum-talk, Ian Hogg's ancient mariner makes many sage comments about love, attraction and marriage. There may also be an element of wish fulfilment in that it is the gnome-like, old sailor that gets the girl at the end, rather than the ridiculous Lothario or her odious fiancé, who eventually confesses that he is penniless.
Elsewhere, Suzan Sylvester makes Hesione Hushabye a success because this is a part that can swallow up the over-effusive style that has been demanded. She is a siren, beloved by every man in the same way that her ludicrously-moustached husband Hector is by all women, including his sister-in-law, Teresa Banham's inexplicably manic Ariadne, Lady Utterward.
It is the raising of their hope of love and the consequent disappointment when it fails that makes the Captain's home Heartbreak House.
As the two and three quarter hour play approaches an explosive dénouement, heralded by over-amplified Holst (inevitably Mars - Bringer of War) the writer begins to pick over "This soul's prison we call England". At the end of the debate, he is able to rid his microcosmic realm of the burglars and invidious politicians leaving behind the citizens to fare for themselves in a happier land.
This may not be a perfect production but it does demonstrate that George Bernard Shaw is a playwright whose work should live on as one of the best of his time but also a prescient and witty writer who still has something to say to his country almost a century on.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher