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Heartbreak House (Chichester)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Here's an interesting contrast between two left-wing dramatists. If Brecht has become a playwright to name-drop, Shaw appears to have moved in the opposite direction. His plays were once the staple of repertory and amateur dramatic societies across the land but tend to be less fashionable these days.

Heartbreak House, Shaw's picture of an indolent, leisured class immured from any sense of morality and cut off from the rest of the country would have been far more shocking when first performed, nearly 100 years ago. The power has diluted over the years – even though there's plenty of evidence to show that the asset-strippers and hangers-on are still with us.

The main problem with the play is that Shaw presents us with caricatures. The gross exaggerations are even alluded to by Shaw himself – the “foreign office toff and the bloated capitalist” both get name-checked. The other problem is that Shaw can't resist a smart retort, and the political message is hidden under the barrage of bons mots.

Shaw’s love for well-turned witticism also slows down the action, although Richard Clifford's gently-paced production doesn’t help, suggesting more of a Coward-like drawing room comedy.

That's not to say there aren't some funny lines. In particular, Jo Stone-Fewings brilliantly captured the button-up diplomat twisting himself into a knot with the conflict of jealousy and duty. Derek Jacobi's plain-speaking and misanthropic Captain Shotover is a richly comic performance. Emma Fielding's Hesione Hushabye and Raymond Coulthard as her self-loving husband also add to the merriment.

But ultimately this production of a play that Shaw saw as a withering attack on the complacency of the aristocracy is far too soft-centred to have any real impact.

- By Maxwell Cooter


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