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The Heiress

by on 29 September 2018

Poorish Love

The Heiress

by Ruth and Augustus Goetz

The Questors at The Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing, until 6th October

Review by Genni Trickett

It is no secret that Henry James didn’t much care for his own novel, Washington Square. He called it “poorish”, and it is true that there is a simplicity to it compared to his later writings. However, simple is not always bad, especially when it is as layered and psychologically incisive as the theatrical adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

The Heiress is a play about love. Or rather, the lack of it, and the devastating effects produced by that lack. It is the mid nineteenth century and gauche, shy Catherine Sloper is living with her widowed father in New York. Socially crippled by her father’s indifference and polite contempt, she is utterly defenceless when handsome, charming Morris Townsend comes knocking on the door. Suddenly the quiet, orderly lives of the residents of Washington Square are thrown into chaos as they find themselves compelled to question their loyalties, motivations and the very meaning of love itself.

Heiress Promo 2

The director wisely keeps the action plain and stilted, reflecting the awkwardness of the characters. People sit, stand and walk in a considered manner, rather like a joyless, stately waltz. The set is beautiful, though the sheer size of the windows draws the eye to the view outside the house, distracting one from the action within and compromising the feeling of claustrophobia generated by too many passions being cooped up together. Sound effects such as eagerly-awaited carriages drawing up outside are very effective, though marred by a lot of loud whispering and muttering from the cast behind the scenes as they await their entrance.

In a letter to his older brother, Henry James wrote of Washington Square; “The only good thing is the girl”. While that is not entirely true of this production, it is certainly the case that Stella Strange as Catherine steals not only the show, but also the hearts of the audience. Her transformations from touchingly tongue-tied girl to passionate lover to cold, majestic chatelaine are wonderful to behold, and even when her judgement falters you are rooting for her all the way. Our actor gives us a nicely slippery Morris, neither hero nor truly villain, but a vacillating, weak man somewhere in between. There is good support from a sparkling belle, cruelly throwing Catherine’s social inadequacies into sharp relief, and a lovely turn from a ditsy, romantic Aunt Lavinia. Elsewhere the acting is sadly monotone and featureless. While this is not such a problem for the small characters, in the larger roles it means that much of the oppressive, stifling atmosphere of the play is lost. The script gives us sudden, shocking flashes of razor sharp bitterness and resentment, but these are not felt. Accents, always a problem when English actors attempt American plays, also slip bewilderingly from New York to deepest, darkest Texas by way of Essex and Ireland.

The Heiress is a production with a lot of potential. With a little polish, some voice coaching and some serious directorial influence on the line delivery to really bring out the subtext, Questors could have a hit on their hands.

Genni Trickett
September 2018

Photography courtesy of Questors Theatre Company

From → Drama, Reviews

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