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Review of Heather at the Bush Theatre

Heather at Bush Theatre
Ashley Gerlach and Charlotte Melia – Heather at the Bush Theatre

I know it’s incredibly presumptive of me but I think that Thomas Eccleshare has the three scenes in his thought-provoking play Heather in the wrong order.

Scene 3 has the two characters acting out the film version of character B’s not-so-spell-binding sub-Harry Potter kiddy-magic fantasy story that involves the Pen of the Necromancer (don’t ask) in some kind of fight to the death-force absorption or something… blah blah blah. If this was scene 1 – as a flash forward – the panache and relish with which actors Ashley Gerlach (A) and Charlotte Melia (B) engage us here and the humorous suspension of disbelief would give the audience a good laugh and set the scene nicely, but as it is, coming at the end, any suspension of disbelief, or belief, or reality is totally negated by what we have learnt in scene 2: the secret is out; it’s not a pleasant secret and it’s not big and it’s not clever. And it’s definitely not funny.

So scene 3 is killed stone dead by what we have learnt before. I think this is a shame. Eccleshare has an interesting idea here and he’s trying to let it out. Scene 1 is the set-up – very clever in its construction – if a little on the long side. Scene 2 is the Awful Truth – intriguingly staged – if a little on the long side. Scene 3 is irrelevant – apart from the last couple of lines – and more than a little on the long side. Once we know the Awful Truth, put across with extraordinarily uncomfortable sterilised emotion by Gerlach and Melia, then we are, frankly, no longer interested in magicians and necromancers and pens and what-have-you. Apart from those last couple of lines that could still end the show much more effectively.

Gerlach is character A, an editor who thinks he’s found the new JKR. His email correspondence with “Heather”, the spell-casting writer character B (Melia) is cleverly staged with both actors speaking into microphones and chucking away a page of emails after each conversation. This is done well by director Valentina Ceschi but the use of microphones inevitably brings its own problems with glottal-attack clicking a constant distraction, particularly with Gerlach. The actors need to be further away from the mikes – and do they need to be turned on in the small Bush Studio – the visual effect is surely enough?

This scene is original, compelling and often funny. Gerlach is patient and gently probing – trying to arrange a meeting with his new writer and Melia has an excellent range of subtle responses mixed in with humorous asides. Which renders scene 2 all the more compelling. I’m loathe, here to be a spoiler-monkey so suffice to say that we have a complete change in both characters, unrecognisable from scene one. This is high-quality acting by a pair of
performers who have an intuitive rapport and the convincing ability to engage in an entirely altered perspective with an astonishing contrast in the characters they are now playing. From that point of view, this is a challenging
script that Gerlach and Melia, with clever probing from Ceschi, handle adeptly.

Designer Lily Arnold’s clinical set is just right (notwithstanding the sacrilegious white-painting of microphone stands – I trust that Sound Designer Iain Armstrong put in the appropriate objections) and Armstrong’s soundscape and specially composed music enhanced the at times electric atmosphere. Joe Price’s Lighting ranged from sinister-cool to funtime-frolicks and I particularly liked the detachable strip-lights.

Heather is definitely a show well-worth seeing and no doubt some people will have a different standpoint to me but I do think a realignment of the scenes might well help Eccleshare to get across the very serious point he is making more powerfully.

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

A reclusive children’s writer becomes wildly successful. Her books are treasured across the country. But when a troubling narrative starts to unfold, we find ourselves asking; what matters more, the storyteller or the story? Brilliantly imaginative and theatrically original, Heather is a short, sharp play about language, prejudice and the power of stories.

In three acts, the play explores the two character’s relationships to the books and to each other, forcing them to question their own responsibility and motivation. Each act takes the performers into a different mode of communication, forcing the audience to engage with the different ways in which the text is manipulated, mediated and interpreted.

In a world of fake news, now is the perfect time to question, challenge and interrogate the idea of authorship, objectivity and whether a text can exist in isolation.

Dancing Brick and Paul Jellis in association with Tobacco Factory Theatres and the Bush Theatre presents
by Thomas Eccleshare
directed by Valentina Ceschi
designed by Lily Arnold
Cast includes – Ashley Gerlach and Charlotte Melia.

Bush Theatre 31 Oct – 18 Nov 2017
Press Night 2 Nov at 7pm


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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