Review: Heartbreak House

4 star rating
Watchable and engaging version of Bernard Shaw's play, clearly focused on the political themes that echo present-day concerns about our national direction and governance.
Heartbreak House at Union Theatre

Image: Union Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 3 February 2018

George Bernard Shaw

Phil Willmott


Helen Anker - Hesione Hushabye

Lianne Harvey - Ellie Dunn

Toby Spearpoint - Randal Utterward

Ben Porter - Manzini Dunn

J.P. Turner - Boss Mangan

Mat Betteridge - Hector Hushabye

Francesca Burgoyne - Lady Utterward

James Horne - Captain Shotover

Alison Mead - Nurse Guinness

Richard Harfst - The Burglar


George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is a comedy about the deceptions and meaningless pursuits of England's ruling class and an entertaining political commentary about what happens when socialites, tycoons and drifters collide in the pre-World War I British countryside.

Expect the unexpected in this rare revival.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Wednesday 10 January 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars

This revival of George Bernard Shaw's play, first performed in 1920, is part of a 3 month season entitled Essential Classics at the Union Theatre, directed by Phil Willmott.

It's Mr Willmott's third version of the Essential Classics formula which aims to produce works by great writers of the past who have 'reflected on issues we face today'.

Carmen will follow from 7 February to 10 March, with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard due from 14 March to 7 April.

Heartbreak House isn't produced that often so, if you're a fan of Bernard Shaw's work, or even if you're just curious about it, then this production is worth seeing on that count alone.

It also fits neatly alongside Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard, which is due later in the season, since Bernard Shaw claimed his work was written in 'the Russian manner', imitating some of Chekhov's style.

Watching Heartbreak House, I couldn't help agreeing with Michael Patterson's verdict of the play in his 'Oxford Dictionary of Plays' that this is, possibly, Shaw's "most enigmatic play", largely because his intentions are not nearly so clear as they ought to be, even if political matters feature prominently.

The play is set in the country house of bohemian hostess Hesione Hushabye.

Her home, though, seems largely governed by her 88 year-old inventor father, Captain Shotover, a former sea captain who hoards dynamite which lies all around Justin Williams and Jonny Rust's impressive, multi-level set.

Captain Shotover sits aloft in what appears like the bridge of a ship interjecting from time to time in the events unfolding below him as his daughter's guests and family interact.

Ellie Dunn is a seemingly naive young woman who is planning to marry a much older businessman called Boss Mangan, claiming that she owes it to him as he helped her father, Mazzini Dunn.

Later, though, we learn that she's more attracted to Mangan's wealth and the security it can afford.

However, as Mangan is pressed by the other members of the gathering he admits to having no money of his own but merely invests the capital of others into business ventures that he sets-up and controls.

Now that is where things start to go adrift, suggesting to me that Bernard Shaw might not have appreciated the reality of the nature of enterprise and capital.

Even acting as an agent for others, Mangan surely must have benefitted financially on his own account, even if only in terms of bonuses and commission - think of bankers today and the huge sums they make from such payments.

Moreover, the obviously hard-nosed businessman oddly succumbs to something akin to a mental breakdown as he's taunted and quizzed by others in the house.

And I just don't buy that, even if the aim is to show he's not quite so brutal as the other characters (and the audience) might imagine.

Another oddity in the play is the sudden intrusion of a burglar who, it transpires, is not aiming to steal, but goes around breaking into houses of the well-to-do to extract 'contributions' from them in order to avoid the social embarrassment and inconvenience of having to go to court.

Phil Willmott's well-cast and assured production seems to embody a clearer vision of the play, feeling initially like the last night of the proms as stirring, patriotic tunes are heard before it begins.

But lying half-covered in a corner of the set sits the Union Flag discarded, certainly neglected and ignored, suggesting that national identity, political vision and strategy are key themes but play second fiddle to the bohemian frivolities of the leisured classes.

James Horne ably and humorously describes the bluff, octogenarian, rum-drinking Captain Shotover whose rantings about navigation seem to illustrate Shaw's political message.

There's good work from Helen Anker as the unconventional hostess who doesn't mind her husband's dalliances with other women - at least on the face of it - and Lianne Harvey impresses as a young woman who demonstrates she is not nearly so naive as we initially believe, and much more assertive, if not manipulative.

Bernard Shaw's play is rather thin on comedy, even if it's often categorised as a comedy of manners.

And Phil Willmott's watchable and engaging version can't muster any extra humour, even if it is clearly focused on the political themes that echo present-day concerns about our national direction and governance.

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