Her Aching Heart is the Hope Theatre’s third and final in-house production of 2016, billed as “a bodice-ripping musical full of gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery!” Who could say no to that?
Well not me, as it turns out, because I loved it. Bryony Lavery’s lively comedy, in the expert hands of the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, transports us into the pages of a gothic romance novel – with all the flowery language, heaving bosoms and melodramatic sighs you might expect.
In modern day London, Harriet and Molly are taking their first tentative, awkward steps into a relationship, while simultaneously in 18th century Cornwall, the fictional Lady Harriet Helstone, an aristocrat with an unfortunate habit of killing innocent wildlife, meets Molly Penhallow, a kind-hearted country girl who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie. Despite having nothing in common, not to mention clashing on their first encounter over the grisly fate of one of Molly’s fox friends, the two women find themselves unexpectedly drawn together, in an irresistible love story guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart.
From the moment the first chapter, “A Nun has a Nightmare”, is introduced, we know we’re in for a fun evening. Collette Eaton and Naomi Todd throw themselves into their roles with infectious enthusiasm, not only playing both versions of Harriet and Molly but an assortment of other characters too, and doing it all to perfection. Making creative use of a cramped space that offers barely enough room to swing a – er – fox, the two performers manage to wring every last drop of comic potential out of the most unlikely scenes – who would have thought a roe deer being trampled by a horse could result in such howls of laughter?
That said, there’s also a genuine chemistry between the two that makes the fledgling relationship of their modern counterparts both moving and believable. The present day story of Harriet and Molly, to which we return at various points throughout the evening, marks a clear and occasionally jarring change in tone that takes a bit of getting used to. Each time the red velvet curtain swishes closed and the actors break into one of Ian Brandon’s musical numbers, we’re thrown into an altogether more contemplative mood, and reminded that love is far more complex than cheesy romance novels would have us believe. These scenes, though they may seem like an afterthought to the comedy action, we ultimately realise are the true emotional heart of the show. Real life can be painful and difficult – but it can also at times be infinitely more rewarding than fiction.
Her Aching Heart is a laugh out loud comedy and touching romance, which simultaneously pays tribute to and affectionately pokes fun at the Mills and Boon genre by which it’s inspired. An unexpected delight, in which all the elements – great writing, fantastic performances and quality production – come together to produce a magnificent whole, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this show.
Her Aching Heart is at the Hope Theatre until 23rd December.