Theatre: Class, savagery and queens

Written By: William Russell
Published: January 29, 2018 Last modified: January 29, 2018

Heartbreak House

The Union Theatre, London


Into the Numbers

Finborough Theatre, London


SiX: Divorced, beheaded, LIVE

The Arts Theatre, London


The Union Theatre in Southwark, London, has showcased a good, solid and handsomely staged production (pictured) of George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated play first staged in 1919. It opens a three-play season directed by Phil Willmott and he has decided to follow Shaw’s play in the manner of Anton Chekhov with The Cherry Orchard, also a play about how upper-class people are faced with a deeply uncertain future.

Shaw’s play differs from the Chekhov in that, while the latter clearly sensed times were changing, he did not know what was going to happen. But, in 1919 Shaw, having gone through the Great War, was in no doubt, and that makes the gloriously cynical final words of Heartbreak House all the more telling.

This is as good an introduction to those who have never seen the play as could be.

The action takes place in Captain Shotover’s country home where his daughter Hermione Hushabye, a dazzling a fascinating butterfly, is entertaining Ellie Dunn, a young girl who has decided to marry Boss Mangan, an elderly industrialist, for his money. Hesione wants to dissuade her, while her husband Hector has his eye on Ellie. Her sister, Ariadne Utterwood, turns up with her hen-pecked husband, Randall. He’s a Sir, which seems to have been her sole reason for marrying him. Ellie’s useless father, and a burglar after Ariadne’s diamonds, also turn up. As for Shotover, a onetime sea captain turned inventor, he presides over the ménage and has plans for the future which involve rather a lot of dynamite.

The playing is fine, although Helen Anker twinkles a little too strenuously as Hesione and Francesca Burgoyne is mite too overbearing as Ariadne. However, James Horne bumbles sonorously as Shotover and the men are all good. Act one the night I saw it proved rather stodgy, but in Act two things had settled down and the mood of awful things ahead was firmly established so that when the bombers arrive it was no surprise. The set by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust is beautifully conceived, and Willmott’s season opens well – his Cherry Orchard production is one to look forward to in this light of this staging.


The disturbing and powerful Into the Numbers by Christopher Chen looks at the effect writing about genocide can have on historians. Iris Chan was a celebrated American human rights activist whose book, The Rape of Nanking dealing with what the Japanese did in that city in 1937, was a bestseller and exposed the horrors unrelentingly. It was inspired because her grandparents had escaped the massacre, and she interviewed survivors and discovered a lot of fresh material about the savagery. But it affected her badly and aged 36 she committed suicide, although it was some years after the book was published.

Elizabeth Chan is impressive as a woman tormented. We meet her delivering a lecture about the book, being interviewed by the chairman at the event, talking to her sympathetic and worried husband, to her psychiatrist, and confronting ghosts from the past she has written about. They include a callous Japanese diplomat and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who tried to set up a safe zone for the people of Nanking.

Director Georgie Straight has handled this uncompromising play with great assurance and Elizabeth Chan has responded with an immaculate performance. She gets good support from the entire cast and especially Timothy Knightly who plays all the men she deals with apart from the Japanese ghost. It is not an easy piece, but it is undeniably one that makes on think about genocide and what it is that causes it.


More a rock concert than a musical, SiX:  Divorced, beheaded, LIVE by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss is a very witty and tuneful revue in which the six wives of Henry VIII look back at life and death with and debate who was the most hard done by.

The six actresses playing the queens are all gloriously different, can put over their numbers effectively and performer with boundless energy.. Given that all six queens – spice girls all – seize their chances well it seems invidious to single one out, but Genesis Lynea makes a truly dazzling Anne of Cleves. It is, no doubt, part of the joke that she is no Flanders Mare but a thoroughbred.

The only flaw is that inevitable: the sound system lets things down – the lyrics cry out to be heard and too often they got drowned in the general uproar. The chances to rock around the block with these ladies are few – the show is having a short run – but it will surely return to a stage somewhere.

On the evidence of SiX, which began life at the Cambridge University Musical Theatre, the two writers may well turn out to be a force to reckon with in the world of British musicals,