Beginning with soothing music and the distant cries of seagulls, the beginning of The Heart of Things has a distinctly cinematic feel, slightly at odds with the rest of the production. The music stops, and the dialogue begins, the audience thrown into the relationships, many of the familial ties not becoming clear until well into the first scene. This gives the play a sense of eavesdropping, voyeuristically peering through the kitchen windows at a snapshot of family life. The realistic, detailed kitchen set enables the bustle and movement one would associate with any household kitchen, a to-ing and fro-ing that heightens this sense of eavesdropping, emphasised by the naturalistic acting throughout.
The Heart of Things is set in a village in Norfolk in May 2004 and May 2010, two of Ros’ (Patience Tomlinson) birthday celebrations years apart. Although the play explores the family dynamics as a whole, the central focus is on her brother, Peter (Nick Waring), and the gradual falling apart of his life. There is a slow unfurling of past events, dotted with twists and turns and buried emotions. At several points during the play it felt like the real underlying drama had been uncovered, only for it to turn out to be a false direction. The real answer, when it comes, is subtly seeded right from the beginning, and feels simultaneously shocking and inevitable.
The character of Peter requires the most emotional range, and Waring rises to the challenge excellently. We watch Peter visibly having his heart broken in front of us, but trying to hold it in, a scene that demonstrates that Waring’s restraint of emotion is just as effective as his outbursts – although, when Peter finally snaps, it is powerful and jolting.
Alcohol lubricates tongues, fuelling long-held resentments and the power plays between Peter and Brian (Ralph Watson), the wheelchair-bound patriarch. They are ultimately hollow, and although Watson excels as the ruthlessly dismissive Brian, his moments of shaking vulnerability are truly revealing. The play flits between topics, addressing ageing, sexuality, guilt, marriage, lost dreams and the failure of the OFSTED system. Although some of these – particularly sexuality and the efficacy of marriage – could have been more deeply delved into, it seems appropriate that there is no long debate on the topic – it would perhaps break the illusion of reality.
The introduction of new characters in the second scene – Peter’s girlfriend Jackie and Ros’ son William (Amy Rockson and the wonderfully energetic Ollo Clark) – brings out new elements in the characters we’ve already met, further fleshing them out. This is especially true for Peter, for whom these additions bring out a new, playful side to his personality, incurring our sympathy further as we see for the first time who he could be. Despite this brief spirited interlude, emotions become more and more raw as the play progresses. Bob (William’s father, played by Keith Parry) lack of awareness is a much-needed source of humour. He is well-meaning, but ultimately oblivious, something which takes on a tragic tinge as the play draws to a close.
The Heart of Things, is, as the title suggests, a play about uncovering all that is hidden, letting out all that has been bottled up. It reveals the dark underbelly of family life, the shocking reality hiding under ultimately meaningless arguments, and it does so sensitively, in a way that does not feel unnecessarily dramatised or hyped up. There is an emphasis on the importance of family ties throughout, and this, in the end, is what wins out. Ros, William and Peter rush out, and the plays ends as it began. Bob is alone, dreaming of the sea.