A Glimpse of the Domesticity of Franklin Barnabas
Reviewed – 12th October 2018
“boils up into something incompletely satisfying, though satisfying nonetheless“
The voice of Bernard Shaw crackles like a tinny old wireless, sharing the postulate of Franklyn and Conrad Barnabas: that human life should span three-hundred years, increasing the complexity of modern society. This – the Creative Evolution – is a central idea explored in Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. It is worth pointing out that the Barnabases in question are characters from that very play. By introducing to the original petri dish new characters that elicit effervescent reactions, the production focusses on relationships.
Warm lights bring out a well-to-do 1920s living room full of gold gilt-edges of books, heavy-looking portraits and ceiling roses overhead, offering the glimpse into the heart of this boisterous domestic comedy.
They start as a pair; Franklyn (Edwin Flay) and Conrad (Anthony Wise) who teeter on the edge of clunky exposition as they outline their idea of Creative Evolution and its relevance to the situation at hand: that Clara, Franklyn’s wife, has left the household. Any clunkiness is forgotten when Franklyn’s brother-in-law, Immenso Champernoon (Jonas Cemm) enters the room. He is a brash, hilarious caricature of Shaw’s contemporary, G.K Chesterton (Shaw himself described the portrayal as libellous), who is shoe-horned into the play to commence a contest of ideas.
The rest of the cast are introduced one by one, bickering with Champernoon over the institution of marriage, eastern philosophy, the empire – a seemingly endless list of moral coordinates. Laura Fitzpatrick, as Franklyn’s wife and Immenso’s sister, Clara Barnabas, trails a knowing, contrariness around the stage, winding up the men in her midst and allowing them to argue over the fallout. Her daughter Savvy (Johanna Pearson-Farr) hams-up her flirtation with the Reverend Haslam (William Keetch), but this works with, not against, the action.
Cemm, as Champernoon, bears an uncanny likeness to Chesterton and every fast-paced line spat out with haughtiness feels like it might have been improvised by Chesterton himself. He puns and plays with paradox, blurting out words, arguments and ideas with a blistering wit that’s hard to keep up with at times.
With telegraphed nods to Shavian ideas of feminism and beauty, Mrs Etteen (Julia Faulkner) and Champernoon enter into a long and flirtatious quarrel. The gravity of these interactions is lost among the quick-fire comedy and, when it ends after eighty minutes, I can’t honestly remember having stopped to breathe.
This is a boisterous, rollicking, no-second-wasted production, although it is not without flaws. Published originally in a work entitled Short Stories, Scraps and Shavings, it follows that the structure of the thing is not wholly satisfying. There are no great payoffs to be found here, no sudden intakes of breath, no witty barbs building up, act after act, scene after scene. It is funny. But it all boils up into something incompletely satisfying, though satisfying nonetheless.
Reviewed by Sam Joseph
A Glimpse of the Domesticity of Franklin Barnabas
Pentameters Theatre until 21st October
Reviewed – 9th January 2018
“a master class in casting: without exception, each actor has total command over the text”
It is hard to believe that ‘Heartbreak House’ was written almost a century ago. First performed in 1920 on the English stage, George Bernard Shaw’s text is permanently relevant, which is what makes it a ‘classic’. It is just as entertaining and pertinent as we approach the ‘twenties’ of the new millennium.
This pitch-black comedy is the first of the Union Theatre’s 2018 Essential Classics series, presented by the Phil Willmott Company, dedicated to topical productions in which issues tackled by great playwrights and composers of the past reflect on today’s world. George Bernard Shaw subtitled his work ‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’. Ostensibly he is paying homage to Chekhov, though there are more nods towards Wilde or Ibsen here. Yet, in my mind, it surpasses both with its intrinsic sense of danger, intrigue and fascination.
From the outset we realise we are in for something special. Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s set is a masterpiece in its own right. As a result, expectations are indeed raised, though it is safe to say that, under Phil Willmott’s direction, they are well and truly sustained throughout. This is a master class in casting: without exception, each actor has total command over the text. They handle the rhythm of Shaw’s dialogue with the skill of virtuoso musicians.
Hesione Hushabye is gathering the outrageously eccentric family of Captain Shotover together in their country house to save her young protégé, Ellie Dunn, from a marriage of convenience to an ageing industrialist. But the bride to be is not as naïve as she appears. In fact, all the characters are not quite what they seem. A heartbroken adolescent can instantly become a cynic on the prowl, a maternal confidante can also be a seductive hostess and emasculating wife, a philanderer can become a hero. These turns and twists of character are what keep us on our toes. James Horne, as Captain Shotover, gives a star performance, appearing at first to live without rhyme or reason, yet behind his ‘Spike Milligan’ eyes he manages to convince us that he is all too aware of what is going on under his roof. Helen Anker’s Hesione utterly bewitches as the witchy lady of the house, a stark contrast to her estranged sister, Lady Utterwood, a high-society prig played by Francesca Burgoyne who deliciously delivers her put downs with a lacerating wit.
It seems unfair, though space dictates it, to single out individual cast members. The entire troupe deserves a mention. This is that rare piece of theatre where, during the whole two hours, not once does one think that we are watching actors playing their part on a stage. They are the characters. And one really does care for them. Behind the razor sharp wit, the biting aphorisms and the cynicism, it is clear that each character does have a heart. This is testament to the performances, not just to the writing. The audience inhabits their world, albeit a world drifting towards disaster.
Shaw depicts a cultured leisured Europe before the war; the deceptions and meaningless pursuits of England’s ruling class, and the divide between rich and poor. Throw in the talk and fear of pending war – it might have easily been written about today’s world: “Is this England or a mad house?” asks one of the characters. Yes – there is an underlying message, even a warning, that George Bernard Shaw is drumming home. But he was acutely aware of the notion that the best way to get your message across is to entertain.
And, boy, are we entertained.
If this is a taste of what is to come throughout the season at the Union we are in for a treat.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Scott Rylander
Union Theatre until 3rd February