views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Her Aching Heart
The Hope Theatre
2nd December 2016


Naomi Todd as Molly

Photography © Roy Tan

Sometimes, it's hard to believe in love. You meet who you think is your prince, you try not to, but your mind races ahead, you make secret plans and promises and then he disappointingly turns out to be a bearded frog. Such is life. However, step inside The Hope for a few hours and even the most committed of Miss Havishams will believe that true love still exists. Yes, Her Aching Heart is a lesbian bonkbuster parody, but in amongst all the wickedly sharp humour and girl and girl romance, it's quite simply the the hauntingly gorgeous tale of two people connecting. Thanks to Matthew Parker's sympathetic direction, you'll soon feel blind optimism again. (Well, when you're in his theatre. You're on your own as soon as you exit to Upper Street - despite all evidence to the contrary, he's just a mere director, he doesn't have superpowers, you know.)

When a downcast and world-weary Harriet (Colette Eaton) picks up a trashy novel, she soon finds herself lost in the Mills and Boon-esque world of its two protagonists, who happen to share the same names as her and a woman she's met recently. Harriet Helstone of Helstone Hall is old money, with a plummy accent, an inability to dress herself without assistance and a fondness for foxhunting. By contrast, poor Molly Penhallow of Penhallow Hollows (Naomi Todd) is a simple peasant girl, who both loves and is loved by all the creatures of the forest. Although they have absolutely nothing in common and move in very different circles, a chance encounter prompts the two women to fall madly in love with each other much to their bewilderment. From time to time, the real Harriet and Molly break the reverie with awkward phone calls as their fledgling relationship is formed with some bonding over their shared poor taste in reading material.

When it comes to Bryony Lavery's utterly ridiculous cliché-ridden script, you can either embrace its daftness or go home. There's really no middle ground. The deliberately ramshackle, low-budget props are inherently funny, with their creaky sound effects and the abrupt timing of their introduction all adding to their overall impact. The sheer number of characters played by Eaton and Todd tests their comic range, with the transitions between parts (including a country bumpkin and a lowly maid) always either wonderfully smooth or intentionally lumpy. Long pauses, knowing glances, petulant and overblown exchanges and silly costumes all bring out the glorious humour of the piece. It doesn't matter how determined you are to be unaffected by this show, it will have you laughing so hard it will physically hurt - not only is the timing spot on and the gags well-written, but it's staged with such an uplifting charm. The world genuinely seems like a better place afterwards.

Colette Eaton as Harriet

Photography © Roy Tan

Rachael Ryan's set design is imaginative, somehow managing to make the stage seem positively TARDIS-like with a velvety red curtain that shouldn't really fit into the space and yet does. Bold, strong purples and reds in her costume design add to the decadent, rich and passionate staging. I've never really been one to care much about the rights of soft toys (there are, some might say, bigger battles to consider) however I found myself positively aghast at what one unlucky puppet had been subjected to all in the name of art. I'm mildly ashamed to say I laughed anyway. You simply can't stop yourself from finding these devilish little touches downright hilarious.

Her Aching Heart isn't a musical as such, rather a play that happens to have some songs thrown in. Think of them as a bonus, rather than the main draw. Although the words are provided by Lavery, each production is tasked with creating the music to go with it. Ian Brandon's compositions here complement beautifully the tone chosen by Parker, ranging from a moody, sultry number, Uninvited, to silly duets like It's Spring - Hearts Mend and In Love Again. In the intimate space of The Hope, there's really nowhere to hide and you have to applaud the women for singing through Anthony Whiteman's choreography without hitting a duff note and never swallowing the crisp, clear, wildly absurd lyrics.

When LGBTQ theatre is quite simply theatre, it's at its most powerful. The delicate new bond between Harriet and Molly is hugely relatable and transcends sexual preferences. Following on from the staggering success of Steel Magnolias and Sea Life, Her Aching Heart closes the in-house season on yet another high. A fun (and infinitely classier) alternative to the traditional December panto, we think Her Aching Heart is an infectiously cheerful play with songs, perfectly balancing comedy with compassion.

(So does the fox.)

Her Aching Heart opened on 29th November and runs until 23rd December 2016 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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