Heartbreak House, Chichester Festival Theatre

GEORGE Bernard Shaw meant Heartbreak House to illuminate the absurdities of the leisured class of his time, embroiled in their silly, pointless, wasteful existence while oblivious to the killing fields of the First World War.

In this new production, which opened at Chichester Festival theatre this week, many of those who applauded its opening night may have drawn parallels with today’s rich and idle. The lives that are lost and wasted in this decade may not be on the battlefield, but a perceived indifference to the suffering of the masses as recession bites makes a poignant backdrop to this production.

Those unfamiliar with Bernard Shaw’s work may have unwittingly presumed that this was an early French window, drawingroom farce with its setting in the country retreat of more than slightly dysfunctional family. The English at play with romance, intrigue, barmy relatives and equally insane house guests.

Throw in a scatty, but nevertheless worldly wise, house maid to counterbalance the equally obscure crusty father figure, and it has all the makings of a Noel Coward rib tickler.

But Bernard Shaw was writing before this staple of the English theatre became the acceptable face of comedy, even if there are some marvellous comedic moments.

Derek Jacobi plays Captain Shotover, the mildly insane yet marvellously incisive patriarch who has a habit of keeping dynamite in the garden in the hope of blowing up just about anything that gets in his way.

Jacobi stole every scene he wandered almost aimlessly through, his lines dropping like bombs from a Zeppelin, one of which also of course puts in an appearance.

Ronald Pickup in the role of Mazzini Dunn and Fiona Button as his daughter Ellie have found themselves in this insane world where obsessive love appears to play second fiddle to obsessive selfishness.

Jo Stone-Fewings, is marvellous as prancing, almost effeminate Randall Utterwood, Raymond Coulthard in the role of the dashing, if slightly deranged Hector Hushabye strikes a tragic-comic figure.

But despite appearances, this is not a farce. At times the audience seemed a little lost themselves, wishing to find the whole proceedings amusing, but struggling to be truly amused.

This is a pity as Bernard Shaw’s work here needs the bell-laughs to die as the reality of the hopelessness of wasted, feckless lives sinks in.

Heartbreak House runs until August 25.

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