If it’s summer it must be Shaw at the Abbey. Annabelle Comyn, who helmed Pygmalion and Major Barbara, is replaced by Roisin McBrinn, but Nick Dunning returns for more Fassbendering.
Ellie Dunn (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has been invited to the Shotover residence by Hesione (Kathy Kiera Clarke), who then neglects her entirely. The irascible Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert) entertains Hesione’s guest, while disparaging to Ellie his other daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword (Aislin McGuckin), who thus arrives home after 20 years’ absence to a cold welcome. Receiving a baffling welcome is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Chris McHallem), who Captain Shotover insists is an old shipmate who stole from him, but let bygones be bygones. Mazzini is attempting to marry Ellie off to his benefactor, vulgar capitalist Alfred ‘Boss’ Mangan (Don Wycherley), but Hesione is determined to marry Ellie off to her true love; except that unfortunately he turns out to be Hesione’s own husband Hector Hushabye (Nick Dunning). Add in Ariadne’s smitten brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Marcus Lamb) for universal delirious heartbreak.
At the interval I thought that Clarke was over-playing the eccentricity of Hesione, and that Wycherley was engaged in some oblique Python tribute with Mangan’s belly as bloated as M. Creosote and his delivery as hoarse and mentally exhausted as a Gumby. But after the interval I realised they were merely the advance troops for Shaw’s assault on realism. Heartbreak House positions Shaw far closer to Coward than I’d ever previously guessed. The spoilt aristocrats who ignore their guests, who get nervous, and then get some gumption, while romantic dalliances switch between partners with dizzying speed, must have been an influence on Hay Fever. But after the interval, as Lady Ariadne comes into her own, Shaw toys with Freudian complexes and zinging one-liners in a comedy increasingly far removed from any emotional verisimilitude and on its way to pure absurdism.
McBrinn, like Comyn before her, finds unexpected modernity in a 1920 script. The nautical-styled house by McBrinn’s Perve cohort Alyson Cummins is a wonderful creation, with a sliding floor effect startlingly used for a hypnosis sequence. That hypnosis leads to wonderful slapstick, but a sinister undercurrent finds release in the impressive bombing finale conjured by Paul Keogan’s flashing lights and Philip Stewart’s pyrotechnic sounds. My fellow academic Graham Price is not a fan of Shaw solving the world’s problems in four Acts, and did not appreciate that late lurch into political satire of the ruling class. But while Mangan’s entrepreneurship may be suspect, it cannot detract from the hilarity of sequences like catching an irksome burglar. McHallem’s performance is a nice complement to his Major Barbara turn, Lambert and Dunning Fassbender madly, and Hogg and McGuckin’s characters become impressively commanding.
Heartbreak House’s final lines and visual effect are chilling in this centenary summer and they startle by resembling something Joan Littlewood could have devised.
Heartbreak House continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of September.