Friday, 3 November 2017

Theatre review: Heather

Déjà vu on the way into the Bush's studio space, where Lily Arnold's sparse design gives us a desk with the script on it, with chairs and microphones for two performers. But where Nassim was largely about revealing truths about the writer's life, Thomas Eccleshare's Heather is about a fictional writer - one whose fictions extend further than it first appears. Harry (Ashley Gerlach) is an editor who thinks he's discovered the next J.K. Rowling in Heather (Charlotte Melia,) who's emailed him the first volume of her children's fantasy trilogy. The book is picked up and published without the two ever meeting, Heather at first being pregnant, then getting a terminal cancer diagnosis. But as the series becomes a sensation the press and public get curious about the elusive author, and Heather's excuses for staying in the shadows start sounding more and more desperate.

It's pretty quickly obvious that Heather is hiding something major about her identity; I won't go so far as to spoil what the revelation is, but suffice it to say that Eccleshare has a pretty extreme twist in mind.

Valentina Ceschi's production gives each of the play's three scenes a distinctive feel, opening with the email exchanges between writer and editor spoken at microphones in a laid-back, comic mood, before the truth comes out and the actors finally confront each other across the table. We find out that as well as Heather's true identity, we've also made some assumptions about Harry, leading to an interesting situation where Gerlach and Melia aren't so much playing characters, as avatars for those characters.

Eccleshare has packed a lot of themes into less than an hour, including the central ones around stories and how much we need to know about the people behind them in order to enjoy and identify with them. (In the current climate you could even extrapolate this to the producers, actors and directors who tell those stories and the things that come out about their real dark sides.) The play also touches, less successfully, on issues of race - Eccleshare brings up an interesting point about the uniformly WASPy names of the biggest children's authors, but I would have to agree with Harry that the other revelations about Heather make this a bad case study to try and make that argument in.

I can suspend disbelief in some ways more easily than others, and one big problem I had with Heather was how much it falls into the latter group: I can understand the argument about buying into the romance of the elusive author, but the idea that a publisher wouldn't look into a potential children's author for precisely the legal implications that crop up is too much of a stretch (as well as, just like in The Seagull, the idea that the modern British press and public would take that long to look into a mysterious figure once they became popular.) Strong performances and a lot of interesting ideas here mean Heather offers up a lot of thorny issues to think about, but there's far too much I found problematic about the play itself.

Heather by Thomas Eccleshare is booking until the 18th of November at the Bush Theatre's Studio.

Running time: 55 minutes straight through.

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