Very appropriately in the CFT’s 50th anniversary year, Heartbreak House brings the huge pleasure of a beautifully-worked performance from Sir Derek Jacobi.
Indeed, there is much else to admire in an elegant and often amusing production.
But the problem is that admiration is not the same as involvement, and it’s the involvement that’s lacking, certainly from the audience’s point of view.
The play was born of Shaw’s anger, we are told, at the apathy of the leisured, self-indulgent, non-working classes who effectively fiddled while Europe threatened to burn in the years which led to the First World War.
And in that sense, Shaw clearly realised his dramatic aims.
For the audience, though, these aims come complete with stumbling block: watching aimless and futile people being aimless and futile really isn’t much of a spectator sport.
Jo Stone-Fewings plays it for the laughs as Randall Utterwood, a ludicrously-besotted toff dopily in love; and Raymond Coulthard is often amusing as Hector Hushabye, a fantasist with a vague consciousness of his own silliness.
Fiona Button has much more to play with as Ellie Dunn, the pragmatist fully aware of the importance of money in the world she’s forced to live in.
But it’s Derek Jacobi who steals the night as the eccentric Captain Shotover in a terrific scene where he fleetingly discloses the acute perception he prefers more usually to hide behind a mix of bluster and head-in-the-sand detachment. He urges Ellie to “live”, and it is a beautiful moment.
But not even Sir Derek – and he comes close – can persuade that this is a play we really need to be watching today. Nice production, very nice production in fact, but despite the combined efforts of an excellent cast, you can’t honestly say that dusting off Heartbreak House was the right decision for 2012.
Understandably, the CFT are keen to tell us that the play is remarkably relevant to us today; if that’s really so, then you’d have to concede that this particular production has failed to do it justice. In truth, it’s the play that’s at fault.