“Last night I dreamt I went to Helstone Hall again,” if that sounds familiar then you’ll be right at home with the Mills & Boon/ Barbara Cartland – or even de Maurier – styled Gothic romp, Her Aching Heart.
Bryony Lavery’s lesbian historical romance, that brings together a real life modern couple, is drawing the crowds to Islington’s Hope Theatre.
And it’s easy to see why. Absurdly daft, wonderfully overacted and heart-warming in its telling, this two-hander has the ability both to charm and make you laugh out loud.
The Hope’s artistic director, Matthew Parker, knows how to pick ‘em. Lavery’s 1992 success is a perfect fit for the adventurous little theatre in Upper Street.
Her Aching Heart is described in the programme as “a bodice-ripping musical full of Gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery”. That actually does it a disservice.
It’s very clever, hilariously funny, and acutely observant. Finding and falling in love is tough and sometimes it’s the simplest of things that draws a couple together.
In this case it’s a book. A pretty badly written book if truth’s to be told. It’s the sort of trashy romance that would inevitably end up winning an award for the most badly written sex scenes or top a poll for its dire, clichéd, dialogue. It’s a bonkbuster that’s so bad that it would probably be a best seller if released.
But this page-turner has been picked up by raven-haired Harriet (Colette Eaton – the perfect literary name for this production) and sexy blonde Molly (Naomi Todd). Both are hurting and terrified of facing the future alone.
With their imaginations working overtime the two women find themselves living the dream – or at least, living the racy adventures of – the wilful Lady Harriet Helstone of Helstone Hall and the buxom peasant wench, Molly Penhallow.
This Victorian melodrama has everything. There’s the sultry Lady H, her lip curled and hoity-toity voice perfectly modulated, dressed in black basque and bloomers, flicking her riding crop and lusting after a bit of rough to liven her bored existence; and innocent animal lover Molly, all pouts and wide-eyed breathlessness, as she tries unsuccessfully to save the local wildlife from Harriet’s tempestuous excesses.
Eaton and Todd not only play the principal parts but also entertain with a series of outlandish and wickedly funny support characters including the foppish and lustful Lord Rothermere, who’s looking to harness Harriet to his yoke; Joshua, a simple stableboy in love with his own sister; and the voluptuous, cheeky, lady’s maid, Betsy.
The pair dart behind the stage to rip off a bit of costume or throw on something new, sometimes having to stall if they’re not quite ready. It’s all delightfully dotty.
But as one story plays out we glimpse snatches of the girls’ real lives as this madcap romantic thriller draws them closer.
Her Aching Heart is less a musical and more a musical play. Ian Brandon’s seven numbers are engaging, cute and touching, and serve to support the story rather than overwhelm it. It’s Spring – Hearts Mend is a memorable Act One finale while Molly’s rendition of The World’s Funniest Joke is heartfelt.
Naomi and Colette ham it up enthusiastically to recreate this literary masterpiece, swapping instantly the jocularity of the fantasy for the reality of writing a new chapter in their lives. They also both have delightful singing voices.
Amid this barking mad story is a guest appearance by the Scarlet Pimpernel, a sojourn to the French Revolution, a brief, enthusiastically performed, sword fight and the gory demise of a bird, fox and deer (though director Parker assures that no animals were harmed during the making of the play).
Rollicking good fun.
Her Aching Heart is yet another triumph for The Hope Theatre. Running until December 23.
Her Aching Heart
Madcap and utterly charming, two girls write a new chapter in their lives after roughing out a draft amid a Victorian melodrama. Her Aching Heart at The Hope Theatre.