Heartbreak House

Court One, Christchurch

09/05/2009 - 06/06/2009

Production Details

Of all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, HEARTBREAK HOUSE was his favourite. His classic receives appropriate treatment at The Court Theatre from May 9 as Elric Hooper directs an all-star cast in Shaw’s witty and sophisticated comedy of manners.

Hooper explains the enduring appeal of the piece to audiences and likens both its language and wit to the works of Oscar Wilde. "HEARTBREAK HOUSE seems to turn like a diamond, with its facets catching new and unexpected lights as time passes. One is consistently astonished and delighted by its eternal and prophetic topicality."

In HEARTBREAK HOUSE, Shaw gathers a group of eccentric characters at the estate of the irascible Captain Shotover. In the course of an evening truths are revealed, hearts are broken and tea is served. "On the surface it is sophisticated country house comedy with fringes of farce," says Hooper, "But the play has elements of poetry and uncertainty, which make it unique in Shaw’s output."

The cast are a who’s-who of local and national acting talent with Tim Bartlett, Alistair Browning, Elsie Edgerton-Till, Phil Grieve, Geoffrey Heath, Martin Howells, Yvonne Martin, Lynda Milligan, Tom Trevella and Rima Te Wiata all signing on to the production. "Shaw said that, above all, plays are exhibitions of acting. In HEARTBREAK HOUSE he has proved his point by providing ten actors with ten challenging and gratifying roles" adds Hooper.

The original version of HEARTBREAK HOUSE, staged in 1919, ran for over four hours. For The Court’s production, Literary Manager Elizabeth O’Connor edited the script; cutting the running time almost in half to produce a version that "moves at a quicker pace while keeping the wit and appeal of the play".

Designer Julian Southgate incorporated Shaw’s theme of "a ship without a Captain" into the visual design of the show. Many of the props are built from "recycled" nautical elements and the design of the country house set masterfully echoes a great ship.

Hooper is confident audiences will delight in the wit and wisdom of Shaw’s razor-sharp, thought-provoking and bitingly funny play.

HEARTBREAK HOUSE runs for four weeks in Court One.

Venue:  Court One, The Court Theatre, Christchurch
Production Dates:  9 May – 6 June 2009
Performances:  6pm Monday / Thursday; 7:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (no show Sundays), 2pm matinee Saturday
Tickets:  Adults $42, Senior Citizens $35, Tertiary Students $25, School Children $15, Group discount (20+) $33
Bookings:  The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Boulevard; 963 0870 or www.courttheatre.org.nz


Tim Bartlett, Alistair Browning, Elsie Edgerton-Till, Phil Grieve, Geoffrey Heath, Martin Howells, Yvonne Martin, Lynda Milligan, Tom Trevella and Rima Te Wiata 


2hrs 40min, incl. interval

Heartbreak made relevant with heart

Review by Lindsay Clark 10th May 2009

Of the great man’s plays, this was reputably his favourite, more strongly supported perhaps by critics than audiences. This deeply engaging play has never ceased to challenge and engross both parties however, from its first production in 1920 at another Court Theatre.

The current rendering, under the impeccable direction of  Elric Hooper, demonstrates a team well in control of the wealth of eloquence and ideas Shaw offers and since the heartbreak he explores is the ongoing legacy of human society, it is high time we saw it again.

In a letter to the Sunday Herald, Shaw himself calls it “stupendous value for money,” with enough drama, acting and general entertainment for three nights rolled into one. On the other hand, John Osborne, another angry man, writing to another newspaper half a century later, dismisses it as “Chekhov-for-philistines” and “posturing wind”.

In 2009 it seems a  highly colourful blast of  shrewdly observed humanity, its English country house setting at the time of the Great War comfortably distant from our own: a trifle mannered and even farcical, unless we choose to recognise  familiar attitudes to our own  in the wilful buoyancy of its occupants.

The house belongs to eccentric old Captain Shotover and is built like the poop deck of a ship – an allusion to the legendary Ship of Fools in which feckless beings drift through the world without direction or hope. Julian Southgate’s design is at once extraordinary and functional, keeping this central image firmly in our view. Characters drift off to sleep, are hypnotised, or merely fascinated by frivolous possibilities throughout the play, until the electrifying final scene when reality strikes.

Thus we follow on one level romantic interests and reflections about families, gender, social divisions and capitalism, while another deeper condition is building, one of uncertainty and unease, not dissimilar to the mood of indulged modern society. No one in the assembled group of the good Captain’s household and visitors is contented or self reliant, except himself and he is adjudged mad.

An exceptionally strong cast is at work to flesh out Shaw’s ideas and do justice to the witticisms that spike the play with delicious irony. As Captain Shotover, Geoffrey Heath is at once acerbic and appealing, flanked by his outrageous daughters Hersione Hushabye (a luminous Rima Te Wiata) and Lady Ariadne Utterword (an imposing Lynda Milligan).On the male side of the family Hector Hushabye, given to poetic leanings and sporting a  glorious moustache, is played with panache by Alistair Browning, while Tom Trevella, an Utterword in-law, worships the Lady with fervent idiocy.

In their midst arrive the catalysts, one Mangan-rich, devious and middle aged commercial emperor (versatile Tim Bartlett) and one who will confound everyone as she deals with him and with her own heartbreak. This is Ellie Dunn, played by Elsie Edgerton-Till, who brings a  grave truthfulness to the pivotal character.

Nor is this the whole story. Significant contributions to the world of the play are convincingly made by Martin Howells as her impoverished, failed businessman father Mazzini, Yvonne Martin as Nurse Guinness, and Phil Grieve as her burglar husband. No fewer than ten absorbing roles, each with something worth saying.

So many points of interest need careful management if we are not to run out of mental energy as watchers and listeners let alone thinkers. This is where the direction and creative team succeed with considerable flair. The stage picture with contribution from costume (Emily Thomas) and lighting/sound design (Joe Hayes) is invariably fluent and immediate. The final scene especially is a collective triumph.

Shaw claimed that his work was not an “explicable phenomenon”, but the work currently on stage at The Court refutes that, at least  in the living application of it.

Be not mistaken. Here is intelligence and skill bringing an old play to contemporary relevance in the best tradition of theatre – by doing it with heart.


Peter Gibson February 11th, 2024

Shaw always seemed more head than heart to me. Perhaps why Frank Harris described him as “the first man to have cut a swathe through the theatre and left it strewn with virgins”. https://www.famousinsults.com/relationship-insults/

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