There is a wind of change blowing after European unrest but what will it mean for England and society as we know it? Can we navigate the storm or flounder in the squall?
George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, crafted very much in the style of Chekhov but with far more laughs, is radical and thought-provoking, and rightly so as it premiered just after the First World War, but sometimes the comedy is laid on with a trowel.
The rapier wit and sparkling one-liners, themes of chaos abroad, emancipation, jingoism and social upheaval, plus bold female characters, make it a perfect opener for Phil Willmott’s Essential Classics season at London’s Union Theatre.
Willmott, who will follow Shaw with Carmen and The Cherry Orchard, directs this production as part of his third annual residency at the Union.
He occasionally lets the rudder slip, steering a more confident course to the balmy waters of a jolly country-house farce rather than push against the choppy swell of a biting social satire.
It is a play so full of eccentrics and their accompanying outlandish behaviour that I’m not entirely convinced that Shaw himself knew what he had created.
Heartbreak House had to be light enough to be engaging but dark enough to say something meaningful, relevant enough to endorse Shaw’s credentials as an intellectual and social commentator, and controversial enough to influence popular opinion.
What he came up with is a complex and occasionally muddled play but one which this ensemble have got to grips with, giving a good account of themselves and the written word.
Some of the dialogue is shockingly outdated but there are lines that make you sit up and think. And, unusually, there isn’t a single character that you can fall in love with or even like.
Underneath their self-deception and posturing lies snobbery, narrow-mindedness, jealously, ruthlessness, tyranny and opportunism, not to mention a whiff of adultery.
On the continent there is the rumble of war and, on this side of the Channel, Edwardian society is on the cusp of huge change. The gentry have insulated themselves against reality while the poor and working classes defer to their betters.
If ever there was a louder siren call for revolution it is emanating from Heartbreak House where the whole of society is represented.
We’re at a country house by the sea where a mad old captain spends his days downing rum and trying to invent new contraptions.
He’s surrounded by sticks of dynamite and sits aloft, on a makeshift poop deck, beautifully constructed by set designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust.
But is he as barking as he appears? James Horne fires a deafening broadside as Captain Shotover, opening the play with boisterous eccentricity but, thankfully, finding more subtle layers to the old boy’s character as the play progresses.
The Capt’n’s peace is shattered by a house party, organised by his flighty and provocative daughter, Hesione (an effervescent Helen Anker who conducts the action with finesse).
She has invited a young girl, Ellie, and her elderly “fiance”, businessman Alfred “Boss” Mangan, down with the sole intention of splitting them up. She is appalled and mystified as to why the pretty but prim miss would agree to such a mismatch.
But before she can put her plans into action Hesione’s estranged sister, Ariadne, gatecrashes the event with her drip of a husband.
Ellie admits to her hostess that her head was turned by a charming young officer she met on the train – who turns out to be Hesione’s flirtatious hubby – a burglar appears as does Ellie’s destitute dad, Mazzini Dunn.
Hesione attempts to charm and seduce everyone while the foul Ariadne frequently gives her husband, Randall, such a tongue lashing that the opening night audience collectively gasped at her cruelty.
Charming bounder Hector twitches his moustache and openly flirts with his sister-in-law and both Mangan and Mazzini earn our sympathy, albeit briefly.
Meanwhile Ellie appals everyone by openly admitting that she is marrying to escape poverty and doesn’t want to be saved – by Hesione or anyone else.
It is a chaotic and unruly clash of personalities and temperaments but all well delivered.
Francesca Burgoyne, as social climber, Ariadne, has some blistering dialogue that knocks her weak, ineffectual husband (Toby Spearpoint) for six while JP Turner’s portly, ruddy-faced industrial magnate, Mangan, is masterful.
He is, in turns, despicable, underhanded, conniving, pitiful and wretched. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry at his predicament.
Mat Betteridge plays it cool and commanding as Hesione’s lothario husband, Hector, and Ben Porter reveals unexpected depth and understanding as Ellie’s put-upon white-collar factory worker, Mazzini.
This is a good, solid, opening to a season which will continue with Bizet’s incendiary Carmen and revisit the frustrations of country house living in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Heartbreak House runs at the Union Theatre until February 3.
Phil Willmott navigates a steady course through Bernard Shaw's turbulent Heartbreak House though he occasionally drifts away from meaningful satire and into jolly farce.