Pantos are great – but it’s easy to overdose and they can feel rather samey if you see more than two or three a season. The trend for adult and alternative pantos is great for adding variety, but they tend to follow similar storylines and narrative formulas. Bryony Lavery’s victorian send-up Her Aching Heart has all the OTT melodrama and silliness of a pantomime, but this two-character, lesbian love story is decidedly not a panto. Full of innuendo and comedy, the play-within-a-play is a well executed, richly designed and utterly delightful affair.
As two contemporary, nameless women fall in love over gothic novel Her Aching Heart, the book unfolds around them in reams of velvet, riding crops and bloomers. With heaving bosoms and heightened emotions, Lady Harriet Hellstone of Hellstone Hall (Colette Eaton) encounters bewitching blond peasant Molly (Naomi Todd) whilst hunting in the wilds of Cornwall. Though their initial meeting has a violent end, it’s the birth of an all-consuming obsession spanning personal tragedies and multiple nations.
Lavery’s early script is a bit clunky and takes some time to settle into its own rhythms, and the ending is a bit abrupt. The second half is generally stronger as the structure has been clarified by the interval. Matthew Parker’s detailed direction attacks the story with enthusiasm, visual gags and lots of hilarious gimmicks. Eaton is a posh, plummy Harriet and Todd an earthy, animal loving Molly; they are excellent character foils, strong singers and full of energy and charisma. Their snogging is a bit awkward and there’s a surprising lack of sex, but the story is a joy to behold despite its softly sanitised portrayal of pretty femme lesbianism.
Rachel Ryan’s design is fantastic. Blood red velvet curtains, riding coats and ribbons, waspies and lace-up boots transform this intimate venue into a fully formed and richly tactile world. The design and direction are in perfect partnership here, but are occasionally let down by this fairly inexperienced script.
Even though the script isn’t particularly strong, it certainly isn’t weak and Parker’s direction effectively distracts from this by focusing on the character-driven story. A sprinkling of songs (the Act I finale is particularly cracking) and meta theatre adds even more joy to this already wonderfully funny production that’s a fantastic, feminist alternative to a Christmas pantomime.
Her Aching Heart runs through 23 December.
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