Wendy Wasserstein’s hilarious yet touching play takes us and our characters from the optimism of the youthful 60s through to the cold harsh truths that the 80s bring, as we focus on Heidi, an art historian and ardent feminist and her struggles to find happiness in the world that surrounds her.
The chronicle of Heidi Holland’s rise to self-discovery is the story of all bright, resourceful women achievers struggling to find equal footing in a world dominated by men. Despite a few slips at the very beginning, most likely due to opening night nerves, the play soon blossomed into a laugh-out-loud and intimate play, that had the whole audience in fits of laughter. We saw the characters grow and develop through the three-decade time period that the play was set in, and the intimacy of the play brought us closer to the characters on the stage.
At the heart of this thoughtful play, of course, is Heidi, as she struggles — not dissimilar to the women Impressionists she so admires — to break free from the margins and define herself as a complete person, without any restrictive gender modifiers. Georgie Smith plays the role with an understated acting style and largely in muted tones, showing occasional glimpses of her internal conflict when Heidi admits to needing the validation of Scoop’s attentions in her existential loneliness, or to selfishly counting on Peter to remain “desperately and hopelessly in love” with her. Her flashes of resentment are energising, and given how often she’s described as caustic, a little more of that edge wouldn’t hurt the performance.
Ed Foster (Scoop) manages to make a manipulative, self-serving philanderer oddly likeable, which is crucial to Heidi’s enduring affection for him, whilst Calvin Jordan (Peter) responds to Scoop’s witty remarks with genial aplomb; he endearingly balances the sardonic with the tragic as her best friend, the gay doctor. Susan, who is essentially the embodiment of the women’s movement through the eras, is played with a sense of fun by Ella Dufton. A challenging part to execute well, she strikes the right balance between being empathetic and comical. Her character is one that undergoes the most change throughout the play, yet she still manages to retain the same playfulness that we see at the beginning, not to mention her great comedic timing. A special mention goes to Miranda Batki-Braun for her comic turn as 80s talk show host, April, and Renae Miller for her lively and dynamic performance playing a plethora of different characters.
Robin Ball’s set design is shrewd and simple. The action takes place against blank white walls scattered with empty picture frames – a nice ironic touch. Particularly in the lecture scenes at the opening of both acts, the walls are also used to project historical images and paintings by unrecognised women of the art world, to act as a visual aid for the audience and to help resemble the teaching environment that is taking place in these scenes. Simple cardboard boxes are used for background set design, and this, in tandem with the empty picture frames on the wall gives the whole space the feeling of being inside an art gallery, despite actually being in Heidi’s apartment or it acting as a neutral space; a nod to the occupation of our heroine. The lighting is minimal, but effective, whilst props were era-appropriate and not overdone.
The play cleverly reflects the events of each period enacted onstage in the editorials and pop tunes of the day – noticeably political mentions of Nixon and John Lennon’s assassination – whilst Heidi journeys through the corridors of culture, finding them empty of everything but an echo. The selection of music, art and photography used to depict each milestone year is well curated, but I personally would’ve liked to see more historical references, especially towards the end. Was it that nothing of real significance happened in the 80s, or was this simply a way to highlight how the characters’ lives were no longer driven by causes bigger than their own? In line with this, and although perhaps a slightly controversial opinion, I would’ve liked to have seen more smoking on stage to really resemble the permanent cloud and haze of cigarette smoke that was characterised by the 60s, 70s and 80s.
All-in all, director Ben Wilson presents a vibrant production that wears its heart on its sleeve, with an unmistakeable affection for the play’s nostalgia guiding us through Heidi’s years of development. The Heidi Chronicles is a work painted with broad strokes, that strikes plenty of well-timed chords about disaffected baby boomers and trendy political subtexts in the women’s movement.
The Heidi Chronicles, directed by Ben Wilson is being performed at The Drama Barn, University of York, 10th – 12th of February. Tickets are available on the door or online.