Oct 28, 2023

Review of Heartbreak Hotel

Reviewed by Jo Morris for Theatreview 

Heartbreak Hotel, by the creative partnership of Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken (winners of the 2022 Bruce Mason Award), is poignant, funny – and fantastic.

Karin McCracken plays a woman working her way through heartbreak, and Simon Leary plays various roles, including exes, dates and other people she interacts with. The show combines memoir, songs and science in vignettes that add up to significantly more than its parts. There’s a playfulness in the shifts between these modes which is engaging from the first direct appeal to the audience. We’re happy, almost immediately, to be on this journey. 

The script is excellent, full of acutely observed moments and pitch perfect dialogue, from deliciously awkward first dates – real, horrible and funny – to intense conversations between couples. At all points, it’s gripping. Even the ‘science’ parts are enlivened (for this emphatically non-scientific reviewer) by vivid personification of the various bits of the body involved in heartbreak.

There’s an assured glide between times and places during the performance, assisted by a well-designed and effective use of sound and lighting: subtle beats and sound effects to create ambience, for example, or a redirection of the audience’s attention through a shift in light-scape. As well, the costumes are simple but brilliant: Leary wearing a t-shirt and jeans that enables him to be the ‘everyman’ figure; McCracken in a lavender suit with a kind of ‘power suit meets cowgirl’ vibe, the clean lines suggesting strength, while the waving fringes signal uncertainty.

At the heart of the show, however, are the compelling performances of Leary and McCracken. With a light touch, Leary sketches out various characters who are more or less distant from McCracken’s character, but then shifts seamlessly into a nuanced and powerful performance as the long-term lover.

Karin McCracken is, quite simply, brilliant. She’s hilarious, heartwarming and moving – often all at once. Right from her low-key opening, she connects with the audience, who respond to the honesty and empathy of her portrayal of a heartbroken woman. Her shifts between mood, and between scene, song and science, seem effortless, and her understated charisma is completely compelling. She owns the stage.

The resolution of this story about navigating the breakdown of a relationship is satisfying, and like the rest of the play feels authentic. You might be left reflecting on your own relationships and the choices that shaped your life, but the play is funny enough that you won’t leave heartbroken.  

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