Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Heather Gardner’ which is at Birmingham Old Rep until 28 March 2013.
Birmingham Rep’s writer in residence Robin French has taken one of his (and my) favourite Ibsen plays, Hedda Gabler, and written what he calls a ‘cover version’ – Heather Gardner. The plot remains largely the same (though somewhat abridged) and placing the play in 1960s Edgbaston throws up all sorts of interesting ironic possibilities – and one rather large elephant trap.
As in the original, the ‘happy’ couple are just back from 6 months of honeymoon and are settling into the luxurious home of a former politician – in this case that of Ann and Neville Chamberlain. Admirers of Ibsen will know, of course, that while bumbling George is delighted with his bride, it doesn’t take elegant Heather/Hedda long to realise she’s made a fatal mistake.
Elizabeth Hopper is terrific in the title role of the ‘most beautiful girl in Edgbaston’ – and the most dangerous. Like Ibsen, French leaves much of her inner turmoil unspoken. But Hopper’s eloquent body language and stern, brooding and frequently false facial expressions lay it bare before us. She’s ultra manipulative and she knows it. Life’s a power game and she wants complete control. But the error that unravels everything in her quest for wealth and influence is her choice of such an innocent and oblivious husband.
He’s entertainingly played by James Bradshaw; a podgy academic with train spotter glasses and an occasional touch of the Benny Hills. He comes on singing “Ying Tong Tiddle I Po” and enthuses about the newly constructed Bull Ring. “In 50 years time people will come to Birmingham just to admire the architecture”. One of the eternal questions in Ibsen’s repertoire is why on earth she should marry such a hopeless case.
She’s had plenty of suitors. Christopher Ettridge is suitably smarmy as the aging lothario Peregrine Brand (Ibsen’s Judge Brack), trying to manoeuvre Heather into his own hands; whilst Sean Hart as her primal, former lover Alec Lambart (Eilert Lovborg) seems out of sorts and unsexy as his own hand wanders up her frock.
‘Hedda Gabler’ has a special place in my soul (I once played George) and I really enjoyed and admired the way Robin French transported it back to 1962 Birmingham. He’s done his local history homework to humorous effect – and when Heather is told she’ll have to tighten her belt, you know he’s having a dig at the current crisis.
He and Director Mike Bradwell also handle the sub-texts very well. Heather’s pregnancy starts with the merest of hints, which coalesce into a rage that drives her to burns Alec’s manuscript (the child she’d wished she had with him) whilst sitting in a bright red chair. The chair is the only primary colour on the stage – a dynamic touch.
But there is a fissure opening and the play falls into it. The final scene of Hedda Garbler is never easy to execute….and the fun French has had with the play so far undermines the tragedy. Unfortunately the death is over-melodramatic – a shadow followed by a blood red splash – and the on-stage reaction is difficult to take seriously.
Which is a pity because a Brummie Ibsen is a particularly good idea.
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