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A CurtainUp London Review
Heartbreak House
"If we women were particular about men's characters, we would never get married at all." — Ellie Dunn
Heartbreak Housev
James Horne as Captain Shotover and Lianne Harvey as Ellie Dunn (Photo: Scott Rylander)
Shaw's plays often have a character in them who is a mouthpiece for Shaw's own views. In this 1919 play Heartbreak House, it is Captain Shotover (James Horne) the 88 year old retired sea captain and parent of the witty socialite Hesione Hushabye (the wonderful Helen Anker) and her terrible sister, snobbish, spoilt and unspeakable, Lady Ariadne Utterword (Francesca Burgoyne). Captain Shotover's household is run like one of his boats with him presiding over the company from his cabin on the balcony of Justin Williams and Jonny Rust's impressive nautical house set with bundles of dynamite everywhere.

The neglected guest is the young and sweet Ellie Dunn (Lianne Harvey) who having been invited by the Bohemian Hesione, has been abandoned waiting for her hostess. Hesione's agenda is to prevent Ellie's marriage to the industrialist Boss Mangan (JP Turner) who is at least three times her age. Ellie meanwhile has met a man in an art gallery whom she could fall in love with, one Marcus Darnley, who enthralled her with tales of dering do. As luck would have it, Marcus Darnley is not even his real name and is as false as the sincerity of his romantic approaches. He is Hector Hushabye (Mat Betteridge), Hesione's handsome philandering husband and unremitting sexual flirt, here dressed in the army uniform jodhpurs of the British in the First World War.

In this play, two people are not as they first appear. Boss Mangan is not the rich industrialist, the "Napoleon of Industry", but a figure head who owns almost nothing. It is Ellie's father Mazzini Dunn (Ben Porter) who toils away while thinking of Mr Mangan as his benefactor. I really disliked Ariadne Utterword, a hypocritical member of the upper classes with a devotion to fox hunting and horses. She is also up for an extra-marital, sexual dalliance with her brother in law Hector. I adored Hesione's opening coup and put down in apparently failing to recognize her own sister, although it is after 23 years apart.

There are sound performances from the cast but I especially liked Helen Anker's animated and sparklingly witty Hesione and Lianne Harvey's expedient and calm Ellie Dunne who says, "If I can't have love, there's no reason why I have to have poverty!" This play does appear to be about women and their choices in this centenary year of female emancipation. Captain Shotover has many of Shaw's witty aphorisms expertly delivered by James Horne.

Phil Willmott's production moves at a cracking pace and comes in at two hours instead of the usual three. What may have been lost is all that metaphorical stuff equalling the state of Shotover's house with the impending second World War, the seeds of fascism being in the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Of course although English society will see changes post the First World War, those changes are not as extreme as the Russian revolution. We are also not seeing a production over labouring the ennui, albeit a very skilled ennui in the hands of Chekhov, of being trapped in a Russian dystopia, but in one with some joyous comedy.

The Phil Willmott Company's next production at the Union is Bizet's Carmen but followed by The Cherry Orchard and a chance to compare the Chekhov play with Shaw's Heartbreak House.

For more about Shaw's plays and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup, see our

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Heartbreak House
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Phil Willmott
With: Lianne Harvey, Alison Mead, James Horne, Francesca Burgoyne, Helen Anker, Ben Porter, Mat Batteridge, JP Turner, Toby Spearpoint, Richard Harfst
Set Design: Justin Williams and Jonny Rust
Costume Design: PennO'Gara
Lighting Design: Ben Jacobs
Sound Design: Philip Matejtschuk
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking to 3rd February 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th January 2018 performance at The Union Theater, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR (Tube: Southwark)
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