It is hard to believe that ‘Heartbreak House’ was written almost a century ago. First performed in 1920 on the English stage, George Bernard Shaw’s text is permanently relevant, which is what makes it a ‘classic’. It is just as entertaining and pertinent as we approach the ‘twenties’ of the new millennium.
This pitch-black comedy is the first of the Union Theatre’s 2018 Essential Classics series, presented by the Phil Willmott Company, dedicated to topical productions in which issues tackled by great playwrights and composers of the past reflect on today’s world. George Bernard Shaw subtitled his work ‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’. Ostensibly he is paying homage to Chekhov, though there are more nods towards Wilde or Ibsen here. Yet, in my mind, it surpasses both with its intrinsic sense of danger, intrigue and fascination.
From the outset, we realise we are in for something special. Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s set is a masterpiece in its own right. As a result, expectations are indeed raised, though it is safe to say that, under Phil Willmott’s direction, they are well and truly sustained throughout. This is a master class in casting: without exception, each actor has total command over the text. They handle the rhythm of Shaw’s dialogue with the skill of virtuoso musicians.
Hesione Hushabye is gathering the outrageously eccentric family of Captain Shotover together in their country house to save her young protégé, Ellie Dunn, from a marriage of convenience to an ageing industrialist. But the bride to be is not as naïve as she appears. In fact, all the characters are not quite what they seem. A heartbroken adolescent can instantly become a cynic on the prowl, a maternal confidante can also be a seductive hostess and emasculating wife, a philanderer can become a hero.
These turns and twists of character are what keep us on our toes. James Horne, as Captain Shotover, gives a star performance, appearing at first to live without rhyme or reason, yet behind his ‘Spike Milligan’ eyes, he manages to convince us that he is all too aware of what is going on under his roof. Helen Anker’s Hesione utterly bewitches as the witchy lady of the house, a stark contrast to her estranged sister, Lady Utterwood, a high-society prig played by Francesca Burgoyne who deliciously delivers her put downs with a lacerating wit.
It seems unfair, though space dictates it, to single out individual cast members. The entire troupe deserves a mention. This is that rare piece of theatre where, during the whole two hours, not once does one think that we are watching actors playing their part on a stage. They are the characters. And one really does care for them. Behind the razor sharp wit, the biting aphorisms and the cynicism, it is clear that each character does have a heart. This is the testament to the performances, not just to the writing. The audience inhabits their world, albeit a world drifting towards disaster.
Shaw depicts a cultured leisured Europe before the war; the deceptions and meaningless pursuits of England’s ruling class, and the divide between rich and poor. Throw in the talk and fear of pending war – it might have easily been written about today’s world: “Is this England or a madhouse?” asks one of the characters. Yes – there is an underlying message, even a warning, that George Bernard Shaw is drumming home. But he was acutely aware of the notion that the best way to get your message across is to entertain.
Heartbreak House at Union Theatre. 8/10