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The Theatreguide.London Review

Heartbreak House
Union Theatre  January 2018

What a wily old rogue Shaw was! Heartbreak House is a play that refuses to be pinned down, sometimes a funny drama and sometimes a serious comedy. 

Every time we think we have it sussed it takes an unexpected turn in tone or focus, and it is filled with characters who adamantly refuse to be as simple and easy to type as we thought. And, far from being confusing or a messy jumble, the play carries us along in the confidence and delight of knowing we are in the hands of a master. 

We are in the home shared by mildly dotty retired seaman Captain Shotover, his glamorous daughter Hesione and her husband Hector. The younger couple are both so beautiful and shamelessly flirtatious that everyone they meet falls in love with one or the other, generating a lot of incidental comedy. 

What passes for a plot centres on Hesione's young friend Ellie, a poor girl trapped by her father in an arranged engagement to older grasping businessman Boss Mangan. 

But almost nothing in that last sentence turns out to be quite true. When Hesione tries to talk Ellie out of a fate worse than death she is firmly put in her place, as Ellie proves to know exactly what she's doing and why. 

And it isn't just that Ellie is a fortune-hunter either. She sincerely likes the old guy and knows she will be good for him, giving him more than value for money in this business deal. 

Meanwhile, Mangan turns out to be neither the dirty old man or the business genius we first thought, and Ellie's father is neither as pathetic nor as grasping as we assumed. 

Repeatedly every character in the play – there are five others – turns out to be not as simple and easily typed as we thought, and seeing how easily Shaw tricked us into false assumptions is a big part of the fun. 

Meanwhile, this being Shaw, the character revelations and plot twists are punctuated both by lots of epigrammatic wit and by pauses for the serious (but always entertaining) discussion of issues ranging from the British national character through the role of women to the approaching First World War.

(And yes, somewhere in all of this is the house and family as a metaphor for an England drifting without apparent piloting toward an uncertain future. But don't think too hard about that.) 

Heartbreak House is full of pitfalls for a director and actors, and I have seen star-studded productions that either spun off in all directions without a core or just lay there lifelessly. Here, director Phil Willmott keeps it all under control and all fully alive and sparkling. 

Working with a smartly trimmed text that brings it all in under two hours, Willmott guides his actors to adept navigation of their character revelations and the play's seeming meandering. 

Lianne Harvey makes Ellie irresistibly cute and perky while gradually letting us discover that the seeming innocent has the sharpest mind and most solid core of all of them, while JP Turner makes Mangan more attractive the more he is exposed as a fraud. 

Helen Anker and Mat Betteridge have fun letting us discover that the seemingly cool and rational golden couple are more blinded by sentimentality than any of the others who fall under their spell. 

And in what amounts to a guest-star cameo, James Horne as the Captain literally watches over the rest from an upper room, reacting and commenting in ways that make his eccentricity the sanest voice of all. 

An impressively elaborate multilevel set by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust seems at times an obstacle course as the actors struggle to clamber up and down its several perilous staircases.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Heartbreak House - Union Theatre 2018

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