Heartbreak House (review)

DEREK Jacobi is always worth the price of a ticket to any theatre but he found himself in deep water as a salty old sea dog in GB Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

He entered at frequent intervals to give the assembled cast a tongue lashing over some social indiscretion or other before exiting with such regularity that they should have given him a revolving door.

Heartbreak House, which is playing in rep at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer, is, if one reads the programme notes, a play about the upper classes’ selfishness and lack of interest or involvement in either the First World War or society’s problems in general. It was something the left-wing Shaw felt passionately about to the extent that he fired off the drama in a bid to stir them out of their complacency.

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But there’s little of that anger and passion in director Richard Clifford’s production. Instead we have a pleasant tale, with surprisingly modern views, of a materialistic young woman out to bag herself a sugar daddy.

It isn’t until the final scenes that the world beyond Heartbreak House intervenes in the insular lives of Captain Shotover, his bohemian daughters Hesione and Ariadne, their would-be lovers and friends.

Jacobi has already had a dry run as a harassed father of wayward daughters with his tremendous King Lear. In HH he has two manipulative minxes (Emma Fielding and Sara Stewart) plus house-guest and husband-hunter Ellie Dunn (Fiona Button) to rein in which he does with a series of putdowns and wisecracks.

His eccentric and cantankerous sea captain is a great character, with some sizzling lines, but we only get a glimpse of his back-story. What we do know is that pretty much everyone staying at the house is flawed, some more than others.

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Raymond Coulthard and Jo Stone-Fewings have great fun with their characters of Hector and Randall, suitors of Ariadne. They are affected and foppish and, unwittingly, add to the lightness of the play’s tone.

It benefits from not being a heavy diatribe on the evils of the upper classes but, in doing so, moves away from the writer’s original intentions - but it’s wonderful to see Jacobi back on the Chichester stage.

Heartbreak House runs in rep until the end of August. For tickets call the box office 01243 781312 or go online to www.cft.org.uk