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Review of HER ACHING HEART at the Hope Theatre

Her Aching HeartThis is a tale of faggots. And tumbrils. And briars. And riding crops. And bonnets. And velvet. With a dash of wattle and daub for good measure. It’s a veritable bodice and jodhpur jaunt through a melange of wimples, whips and button-popping décolletage with an impeccable pedigree, unashamedly sired by Mills and Boon out of Jilly Cooper. And straddling it all, ensuring the narrative is firmly rooted in the human biome of unreality, is betula pendula: yes, dear reader, the innocent birch tree provides a canopy for attempted murder, class skirmishing and stolen kisses of the tribadic kind.

There are plenty of tongues in a variety of cheeks in Her Aching Heart and writer Bryony Lavery proves herself, with her subject matter, to be the ultimate mock-jockey as she gives us a no-holds-barred, taboo-busting, schlocky horror show of a ride through eras and counties and countries and convents. We have horses and hovels, we have landed gentry and squalid serfdom, we have brow-beater and brow-beaten and we have pouting passion possessing the protagonists. And, somehow, the Scarlet Pimpernel gets in on the act.

The show is affectionately directed by Matthew Parker, Artistic Director of the Hope Theatre, and he is blessed with two performers of mesmeric intensity who have an uncanny understanding between them, coupled with the ability to switch character at the drop of a bustle. We have yokels and gentry and servants and a grandma who borrows a tad from Mrs Overall – all played to the hilt. With quick changes combined with slickly choreographed scene changing (courtesy of Matthew Parker) the show keeps up a rattling pace that never falters in its destiny to make us laugh, make us cringe and above all to make us feel we are being regally entertained.

Yes, it’s funny and it’s slick and it’s risqué and it’s racy and it’s salaciously near the knuckle and it comes complete with a crazed pianist behind the scenes whom we never get to see (my preference would be to have him as
part of the on-stage action). I’m assuming this is Ian Brandon the composer though he’s uncredited as such. He provides the music for the excellent, if a little downbeat, songs that allow some appreciated downtime from the rip-roaring, corset-splitting, earth-moving and libido-tingling events that spout like deranged confetti over an unsuspecting audience.

But above all, of course, are our two intrepid performers who fearlessly embark on this inverse-romcom in pursuit of the holy grail of “gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery” (I quote from the programme).

Naomi Todd, as Molly, strafes the stalls with her dumb-but-knowing blonde scatter-gun effect and turns melodramatic reaction into her own personal art-form. She sighs, she pants, she flips, she flops she brushes her knitted brow with her elastic arm and she knows that peasants should combine a bit of forelock-tugging with a fiery streak that screams: “I am a person and I have feelings too!” – which is how it should be in all the best (and worst) romantic novels. She also gives good bosom-heave – a useful trait in a love-struck peasant – and she has a lip-quiver to die for. Todd is a confident singer and performs the numbers with panache though all that panting perhaps affects some of her diction in the songs.

As Harriet, Colette Eaton is a whip-cracking, tongue-lashing, peasant-humbling wannabe dominatrix who “always gets what she wants”. Eaton has the sinister look of a carrion crow on speed, her razor-sharp glance tells you that she will delight in devouring any man’s entrails both metaphorical and actual. Eaton is actually very frightening never more so than when she accidentally stamps her riding-boot through a chair and exits with the menacing ad lib “I will be back to pay for the chair!” But her subtle glances and measured asides make this a lovely comic turn. Her lush but edgy voice is an excellent vehicle for the bluesy-jazzy songs and Eaton’s is a sumptuous performance.

One discordant note, however, is that the disclaimer “No animals were hurt in the making of this show” cannot be applied here. Basil Brush gets decimated, Bambi may have escaped the fire but is ritually slaughtered and Tweetie Pie is mercilessly crushed under foot by the Mrs-Hyde-side of Harriet’s split personality. Despite these gratuitous animal violations no-one left in protest though I suspect a few were guiltily appraising how best to donate their new, plastic, tallow-ridden five-pound notes to the nearest animal charity.

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that there is a full-scale sword fight in the show, arranged by Alex Payne, which is no mean feat in the confines of the bijou Hope. I trust that the Public Liability Insurance is fully paid up as I could quite see someone in the front row getting pinioned: after all it is – er how best can I say this without upsetting anyone? – two females flexing their rapiers [ 😉 ] and accordingly one would have to say there was a fair bit of swash but very little buckle. Very entertaining though, particularly when they simultaneously swing from the same chandelier.

So The Hope goes from strength to strength, pushing the boundaries, setting the agenda and in the case of Her Aching Heart, hitching up the skirts and rolling down the stocking to show us a fair gobbet of ankle: all power to their elbow, I would say.

A bodice-ripping musical full of gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery.

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

Grab a bonnet, lace up your corset, and prepare to swoon, as this tongue-in-cheek musical whirlwind parodies the best in bodice-ripping romance. Innocent maidens and haughty aristocrats ardently pursue each other through a tempestuous, gothic landscape, replete with murder, elopement and heaving bosoms a-plenty as two heartbroken women jump between the pages of the same bonk-busting paperback – and play all the parts between them!

“Oh what a day! Oh what a wind of hope blows through the echoing corridors of my breast! Rattling at the knobs and knockers of the doors to my dry and dusty emotions!”

Bryony Lavery’s wonderful pastiche of the Mills and Boon genre is joyfully peppered with torch songs and is revived at The Hope Theatre in a 25th Anniversary production, featuring original music by Ian Brandon (Notes From My Shelf, Big Bruvva, On Our Street) and directed by Matthew Parker; The Hope’s Off West End award-nominated Artistic Director.

Lighting: TOM KITNEY

Her Aching Heart
writer: BRYONY LAVERY / director: MATTHEW PARKER / composer: IAN BRANDON
29 Nov – 23 Dec 2016
Tues to Sat. No shows Sun & Mon
Part of our GOTHIC SEASON; Autumn/Winter 2016


  • 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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