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Review: Heather Gardner @ The Old Rep, Birmingham

I must admit to a special interest in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler after seeing Circle Line Touring’s jaw-dropping 2007 production three times.

On the first night I sat in the front row, then the fourth row and finally at the back, such was the intensity of Amanda-Leigh Owen’s Hedda faced with no options.

Like Madame Bovary before her poor Mrs Gabler had unsuccessfully tried on all the roles available to a woman trapped in the nineteenth century, making her choice of suicide seem a desperate but courageous act.

So I was looking forward to the Rep’s new show, an updating of this classic set in Edgbaston (home of its young author, the Rep’s Writer in Residence Robin French) among a group of academics at Birmingham University in 1962 – cue Helen Shapiro records etc.

The text abounds with local place names and includes a nice ironic joke about Brum’s sixties architecture “which in 50 years people will be coming to look at.” The Modish Mad Men designs echo the period remarkably well.

Director Mike Bradwell channels Abigail’s Party giving a rather more seventies sitcom sort of feel, not an obviously tragic setting. And I fear James Bradshaw as Heather’s lecturer husband wouldn’t actually have got a look-in with his broad Brummie accent among the groves of academe back then – he’d have been dismissed as irredeemably common. Professor Carl Chinn hadn’t yet been invented. But Sean Hart as rival academic Alec Lambart was spot-on with his impenetrably “U” diction and mandarin drone.

Swelling the chorus was Christopher Ettridge as Edgbaston solicitor Peregrine Brand with a degree of arch “ladies’ man” type flirtation whose insistence somehow suggested quite the opposite.

Elisabeth Hopper’s Heather was lovely but spoiled, an anachronistic Amanda from Private Lives, posh, shallow and impeccably dressed whose actual dissatisfactions remained un-aired. With hindsight her tragedy seems it was a pity she hadn’t waited a couple more years. Then she could have burnt her bra, gone on the pill, turned on, tuned in and dropped out instead of dropping dead by her own hand.

An interesting excursion. I look forward to seeing more from Mr French.

Heather Gardner runs at the Old Rep until March 28. For tickets call the box office on 0121 236 4455 or go online at birmingham-rep.co.uk.

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