Her Aching Heart
★★★★★ “Love is love”
Review by Sarah Tinsley
How can something manage to be irrevocably silly, challenging, and touching, all at the same time? Through a combination of scenery, song and superb character acting, Her Aching Heart manages to be all of these things at once. From Bryony Lavery and Ian Brandon comes a musical gothic romance with a twist. In the intimate setting of The Hope Theatre, the show is immensely suited to the small space, which is managed admirably considering the wealth of settings and characters we meet throughout.
From the outset, we are thrust into a world of hyperbole. With characters and dialogue that could have come straight out of a cheesy historical romance novel, we follow the thwarted love of Harriet, a well-bred lady of the gentry, and Molly, a simple farm girl with a soft touch for all things fluffy. While it could conceivably be ridiculous (there are an awful lot of references to breasts), the actors perform with such gusto and conviction that the audience are left reeling with laughter.
This story is framed within a modern setting, where two women start the show aggrieved, hurt by a lost love and both vowing to never let themselves fall in love again. Yet, of course, they meet each other. And just happen to be reading the same novel – a bodice-ripping lesbian romance. The shift between the two worlds is handled admirably, and somehow, along the way, through the humour, we grow a genuine affection for the characters.
This is a personal project for Artistic Director Matthew Parker. He’s wanted to put on this show for more than twenty years. A few years back, a copy of the out-of-print musical (first performed in 1992) came to him via an actor he knew. And the story doesn’t end there. Outperforming hundreds of other actors, the person who placed the script in the hands of the director is also one of the main roles. Now if that isn’t poetic justice, I don’t know what is.
Collette Eaton delivers perhaps the best plummy British accent I’ve ever heard. Strutting around the stage, she’s a delightfully stuck-up tour-de-force. Each of the characters she portrays are precise and vigorous, and she is captivating whenever she is on stage. Naomi Todd provides a softer counterpoint, who charms both her rival and the audience. Both cannot be faulted for their acting, ad-libbing and physical presence on stage, although it’s a shame that neither of them quite managed to offer the same strength in their vocals.
And then, between the laughs, we are reminded that this story, or indeed any story of female romance, is very rarely told. In the history of musical theatre, lesbian couples have rarely made it centre stage, and are still all too rare in the cast altogether. Perhaps this is why satire is one of the perfect ways to counterbalance this situation. For in satire, we find familiarity. In parody, we are ridiculing things that we are already comfortable with. Which is exactly where stories of all kinds of love should reside.
Which is probably why, at the end, I found myself welling up. Love is love, and all of the singing and corsets aside, a story about finding it and losing it is always going to be a good one. Be prepared for a hilarious night and a pair of memorable characters.