Friday, 23 December 2016

The primrose pastiche… Her Aching Heart, The Hope Theatre, Islington

The love that binds... Photo Roy Tan
As I was leaving university someone left two bundles of Mills & Boon books in my pigeon hole both with professions of love. Who left them and for what reason I shall never know… I did once accuse my friend Noel but he looked at me with a mix of “what a great idea” and “damn, why didn’t I think of it?” Even then M&B were a cliché and if you were genuinely holding a candle for someone are those the books you’d leave? Perhaps…

Playwright Bryony Lavery is well aware of the fun to be had in digging between the pages of this passionate pulp – books for people in love with the idea of love - and wrote this musical comedy with a delicious twist that is not intended to undermine the genre’s enduring formalism but to enhance it: it’s all about the love. Well… that and glove puppets, bodices – ripped and otherwise - a little bit of swordplay and imaginary horses.

Our lovers are played by Naomi Todd – a mesmerising Molly - and Colette Eaton – a hypnotic Harriet – who show remarkable versatility in the playing of many roles always never forgetting to fall in love all over again in whatever magnificent costume or far-flung field they inhabit in the play’s intricately-woven narrative.
Naomi changes chapters. Photo Roy Tan
It's like an all-girl version of Enchanted with the two women both reading the same book and living out its florid passages as they struggle to connect in a real world in which “nice” is the best – the nicest – word their nervous interactions will allow.

In the world of the book – Her Aching Heart: A Lesbian Historical Romance – their characters find voice for excessive expression with Harriet mostly being Lady Harriet Hellstone of Hellstone Hall and Molly being a simple peasant lass with a Disney-esque way with nature: ‘taint a broken creature she can’t fix not even a disembowelled baby roe deer (don’t panic: it’s just a glove puppet… with guts!).
Colette sings and dreams. Photo Roy Tan
Throughout Ian Brandon’s songs are sung well and true – there’s nothing these women can’t do! – and all are West-End worthy: a rousing mix of the sweet and the sour. Harriet belts out the opener, Uninvited, as she drinks a broken heart a little better… “why aren’t you here?” and then, dropping from the roof: a book! She starts to read.

Meanwhile Molly has a dream – a nun in a nightmare - we don’t know who she is yet but she gradually emerges as a simple, in comically-complex ways, girl fond of signalling changes in direction with balletically-exaggerated armography.  Both performances are marked by great attention to such details and they effortlessly glide along the perilous path between slapstick and pitch-perfect pastiche.
Colette, Naomi and that glove puppet. Photo Roy Tan
Lady Hellstone is “an empty shell” missing a heart and rebelling against plans to marry her off to the foppish Lord Rothermere (no relation to the hate-mongering Daily Mail owner, maybe). She lives a life of noble detachment until “following the fox and trying to lose herself in the hunt”, she chances upon the lovely Molly. The peasant girl wants to save the fox but – no! – her dress gets snagged on some thorns and she and the puppet-prey are at the mercy of the hellish Lady Hellstone. But something sparks between the two and Harriet resolves to save the animal too.

But Reynard gets ripped and as blood-drenched hands stretch out in desperate apology, Molly resolves to really, really hate Harriet and the Lady reciprocates. These girls really, really hate each other. No, they really do. Really.

Harriet complains to her brassy blonde maid (a quickly-changed Naomi) whilst Molly vents to her bent-backed grandma (Colette). Every so often the dream-story is punctured by phone calls as the girls tentatively edge their relationship forward in the real world to which we often shift with a mood-puncturing “fuck it!”. The language of love is deeper in meaning no matter the words we use.
Harriet's maid counts the ways... Photo Roy Tan
All of this could go horribly wrong in the hands of less accomplished performers and both Todd and Eaton are so convincingly at ease they filled the intimate space of the Hope with a blissful glow. Working so close in with an audience occasionally pulled into the action – I sat next to a “powdered Lady” from a Hellstone dinner party (I went home with her too) – there’s no margin for error but the masks didn’t drop for a second.

Watch out for these two for they will go very far.

I loved these interactions and the ad-libs: but most of all I loved the love (to almost quote the great Tina Charles): no matter how cynical a time you’re having you’ll forget all about it in seconds in the Hope. Love is the drug (to exactly quote Bryan Ferry).

Bryony Lavery – who had flown in to see this performance - is best known for her hard-hitting drama’s such as Frozen – but here she shows a comic touch that, in my limited experience, I’ve only seen from the likes of Mr Sondheim.
Promotional shot from Roy Tan
Her Aching Heart plays until 23rd December, it is exceptional theatre and the perfect way to help end an otherwise miserable 2016 with songs lifting your step and love warming your heart.

Expertly directed by Hope Theatre boss Matthew Parker, this is not just the best period lesbian musical in London but one of the best musicals full stop! After watching Molly and Harriet follow their pastiched pathway to each other’s hearts I think I’ve fallen too…

Book now at the Hope’s website: it’s only a few minutes from Highbury Tube and there’s a marvellous pub crawl in prospect if you walk along from The Angel!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: *****
Such fun!

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