Ibsen discovers Brummie roots

Heather Desmond, played by Elisabeth Hopper, has her own means of persuasion . . . Pictures: Robert Day

Heather Gardner

Birmingham Repertory Theatre at The Old Rep 

****

BIRMINGHAM-based playwright Robin French takes Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler and moves it from Oslo to Birmingham.

But Heather Gardner is more than a gimmick. By moving the story in terms of time and place (we are now in the early 1960s) its themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, addiction, sexual relations and power take on a new resonance.

Here we have a Heather who does not need to be dependent on her newly wedded husband George Desmond, in fact she even refers to her former job in an office. And yet the financial power of the relationship lies in his somewhat precarious hands. When George's seemingly guaranteed professorship – at Birmingham University no less – hangs in the balance Heather is no emancipated wife rushing to head back to work, instead she relies on devious means to secure his, and therefore her, future.

This is an age when women are prepared to turn their backs on unsuccessful marriages, as seen by Dorothy's rejection of her husband for her lover Alec – but there is a whiff of shame around that decision. The role of women may be changing but in many ways they remain strait-jacketed by convention.

Elisabeth Hopper as Heather Desmond and Sean Hart as Alec Lambart

Indeed there is an air of Abigail's Party around this production – while superficially all seems well, underneath there is total chaos.

James Bradshaw is incredibly likeable as the bumbling George who is so wrapped up in his world of academia and trying to keep Heather happy that he cannot see what is right under his nose. It is hard not to feel pity for him as Heather withers him with her complete lack of love or understanding.

Elisabeth Hopper succeeds in a level of cool detachment which never makes her Heather  even the slightest bit empathetic. All her choices are totally selfish – even her final decision to escape from it all will bring sorrow and shame on those who care for her.

Maisie Turpie, with her broad Brummie accent, is a naïve Dorothy while Sean Hart plays an Alec who veers between self-confidence and self-hatred.

Birmingham audiences will love French's sly familiarity with their home city. His comparisons between Ladywood and Harborne raise a knowing smile while George's reference to the new Bullring as the pride of future generations is particularly dry when we have only recently seen that sixties landmark obliterated.

Not only does French know his Birmingham but he knows his audience, understanding our affection for the city which we feel we can ridicule but which we will defend to the hilt when other cities dare to criticise. There is a warmth in the humour which endears us to the new locality.

In trimming back the language and making the situation and the characters so much more accessible to us, French's play breathes new life into a classic making us re-evaluate its people and its story. To 28-03-13.

Diane Parkes

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