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Heartbreak House at the Chichester Festival Theatre
Derek Jacobi (Captain Shotover) and Fiona Button (Ellie Dunn) in Heartbreak House. Photo © Johan Persson.
Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw
At the Chichester Festival Theatre
Until August 25, 2012.
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell

The Chichester Festival Theatre, now in its 50th year, is a jewel in the crown of British Theatre and is currently on an artistic high. Inaugurated by Laurence Olivier in 1962, it was from here that the National Theatre grew, with the first productions transferring directly to the Old Vic. Since then its March-September seasons have produced a remarkable number of West End transfers and it deservedly gets national and international attention.

Often chided at times for playing it safe (its audience demographic skewing on the old side) or being too star-laden, it has never really lost the lustre of the Olivier years and every great British actor and many a Hollywood star has enjoyed a summer sojourn in West Sussex.

49 years after his debut here Sir Derek Jacobi returned this summer to give us his Captain Shotover in this solid but uninspired production. It has a lot of Chichester trademarks: great casting, solidly lavish sets (by Stephen Brimson-Lewis) and faithful approach to the text.

Shaw’s play, written in 1916, is an angry indictment of a feckless leisured class as they drifted towards the apocalypse. It might today seem an historic artefact, but many of his accusations continue to hit home with disturbing accuracy. He railed, after all, against rule without conscience and a country governed by an unholy alliance of business and the state, enforced by violence both at home and abroad. It’s not just chiffon gowns and Chekhovian ennui.

The play is best in the first act when the allegorical weight of the piece is less pronounced and we can delight in his sharply observed wit. Shaw’s plays often sink under exposition as multiple characters have to be introduced and plot points set up. Here, Richard Clifford’s direction falters: pace rather too sluggish and dialogue played for meaning rather than effect. All this bunch do “go on”, mostly talking nonsense, and the trick is to give it a lightness of touch. It does provide a treasure trove of great parts, although here Jo Stone-Fewings, as Randall, misjudges it and slips over into broad boulevard farce.

Shotover, an old sea captain steeped in booze and melancholy, presides over this house of strays. Twinkling like a fox, Jacobi is in his element, rushing on, unleashing a bon mot and quickly disappearing again. His flighty daughter Hesione invites a catalogue of people for a country weekend including young Ellie Dunn (Fiona Button) who is in love with her cad of a husband. Raymond Coulthard sparkles in the part: “Very few women can resist Hector, he is rather splendid” admits Hesione. Emma Fielding looks splendid too, like she stepped out of a Rossetti painting, but is curiously underpowered as Hesione, a part crying out for some star wattage.

Ellie is the conscience of the piece and her decision to eschew romance and marry the dull plutocrat Boss Mangan upsets the cart. Trevor Cooper is wonderfully awkward and chippy as the self-made man, a fish out of water amongst this set. As in Chekhov, everyone is in love with someone else.

In the midst of all this, Hesione’s estranged sister (the stately Sara Stewart) returns from the colonies and is promptly ignored. Now Lady Utterword, she despairs of everyone’s inability to behave properly and boasts that her husband could sort things out if only given “a good supply of bamboo to bring the British native to his senses”.

Shaw’s points about the self-absorption of all these characters, no matter what their class, as the world descends into the mindless militarism of WWI, were well made and the piece sparkles with wit, but here the stylistic contrasts of the piece don’t totally gel.


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