Chichester’s Festival Theatre continues its celebration of its 50th anniversary with a work by the playwright it has staged more often than anyone else apart from Shakespeare. George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House is a state-of-the-nation play masquerading as a country-house comedy, which shows a self-involved group of privileged people frittering their lives away as they move inexorably towards destruction.
Although the doomsday message is leavened by characteristic wit, the socialist Shaw is intent on highlighting the dangers of an out-of-touch ruling class sleepwalking society into the apocalypse of the First World War.
The play is set in the titular residence of the eccentric misanthrope Captain Shotover, a former sea captain turned inventor who experiments with dynamite. This Lear-lite figure has two recalcitrant daughters: the fey bohemian Hermione Hushabye and colonial governor’s wife Lady Utterwood, who flirts with her sister’s ladykilling husband Hector as well as her own husband’s brother Randall, a foreign-office fop.
Visiting the house, Ellie Dunn finds out that the man she has fallen in love with is in fact the duplicitous Hector, so she now has to decide whether to marry the business saviour of her impractical father Mazzini, the rich capitalist Boss Mangan.
Although Shaw is more often associated with the social criticism of Ibsen’s plays, Heartbreak House is highly Chekhovian in its depiction of a vacuous and blinkered way of life drawing to a close within a corrupt system. And there are certainly parallels to be drawn with the ways in which a corrupt elite have led today’s financially and morally bankrupt society to the verge of disaster.
Whilst Richard Clifford’s highly entertaining production beautifully exposes the absurdity of these self-centred characters it could do with a bit more urgency suggesting the precipice on which they teeter: the explosive ending seems to come out of the blue.
The halcyon Edwardian setting is expressed nicely in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s elegant design, using the revolve to switch from drawing room to garden, backed by Peter Mumford’s evocative lighting and Jason Carr’s portentous score.
Appropriately enough, the cast is headed by Derek Jacobi, a stalwart of Chichester who made his debut there in its first Shaw production, Saint Joan in 1963: his Shotover reveals the kind heart beneath the crusty exterior of a contradictory figure, at once salty sea dog and self-fulfilling prophet of doom, whose ‘seventh level of concentration’ turns out to be a tot of rum. The relationship between his benevolent paternalism and Fiona Button’s naïve romantic turned pragmatic realist Ellie forms the touching heart of the play.
Emma Fielding displays a light comic touch in her Bloomsbury parody Hesione, while Sara Stewart also amuses as the coquettish upper-crust sister who treats the ridiculously masochistic Randall with disdain but meets her match in Raymond Coulthard’s vainly shallow Hector. Trevor Cooper is more buffoon than tycoon as the out-of-his-element Boss, while Mazzini Dunn is played with delightful unworldliness by Ronald Pickup – another veteran from the 1960s Chichester Festival.