Wednesday 25 July 2012

Heartbreak House at Chichester, or, Screwing Up Shaw

It's been some little while since I saw a show which almost uniformly fails to work. This is such an one. It's not a lack of good lines. It's not setting and direction totally contrary to the text. It's not that the performers are without talent. But somehow Richard Clifford, a director hitherto, and on this showing blessedly, unknown to me, has put these elements together and pretty completely failed to achieve lift off.

The fundamental problem is a desperate lack of conviction. Based on the several Shaws I've now seen I think there is often a danger of his characters falling into caricature. Genevieve O'Reilly's performance in the National's Doctor's Dilemma, while not perfect, did catch the essential living quality. Apart from odd moments from Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover and Fiona Butler as Ellie Dunn performance after performance here lapses into caricature. I never really felt that most of the company believed a word they were saying and they consequently failed to make me believe or care about them. There are flashes of amusement to be had from these caricatures but emotional engagement is sadly lacking.

It's also one of those performances where you come to feel that the director has committed the cardinal sin of inconsistency. That's to say that as revelations occur you feel Clifford is as surprised as anyone. “Good heavens,” I seemed to hear him murmuring, “I'd quite forgotten that about her.” This is a significant contribution to making most of the characters rather ridiculous (and not in a dramatically powerful way). When Ellie declares she only wanted to see if she could force the industrialist Mangan to marry her for example, it falls sadly flat because you don't believe in it as a product of the character's emotional journey, it is simply the next line of the script with most of the previous ones having been apparently forgotten almost as they were uttered.

Altogether it's a long, dull two and three quarter hours in the theatre. One to be avoided.

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