Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th April, 2016
The much-loved TV series, a staple of Sunday night viewing for 18 years, is resurrected in the form of this touring production, a kind of extended episode featuring two members of the original cast. I must confess I never watched an episode of it in its entirety but I was aware of what it was about. It’s a kind of Western but set in North Yorkshire. Just as Westerns give a nostalgic view of an America that never was, Heartbeat does the same for England.
Much of the action takes place in the saloon – the Aidensfield Arms. There is the sheriff in his white hat (here a constable in his police helmet) shepherding the locals and defending them from outlaws and outsiders. As the lawman, tall, dark and arrestingly handsome Matt Milburn looks and sounds the part, making the most of a two-dimensional role. Carly Cook is Scouse barmaid Gina, dealing with the incompetent pint-pulling skills of her part-time staff, the local undertaker Bernie Scripps (David Horne, working hard to bring some decent character work to a lacklustre script).
PC Geoff Younger (Steven Blakeley) and David Stockwell (David Lonsdale) get big cheers to welcome them onto the stage. Everyone else recognises them from the telly and it appears they can do no wrong. Clearly much adored, the hapless constable and the bumbling bungler deserve better than the sub-panto sequences they are obliged to perform. As the play goes on, their scenes become increasingly bizarre, with an arch-theatricality that is at odds with the rest of the show. There’s a running joke of Stockwell’s dog (which also gets a cheer) being a stuffed toy; a grave-digging scene remarks on the hardness of the floor… Suddenly we’re in Emmerdale as written by Samuel Beckett. People lap it up, delighted to see the actors and their characters. I feel like I’ve stumbled across some kind of laughing cult. If original series heartthrob Nick Berry had walked on, the theatre would have exploded.
Trouble comes to the village in the form of The Troubles, when mysterious young Irishman Aidan McGuire (Callum O’Neill) arrives, pursued by mysterious Special Branch officer James Sheedy (Jason Griffiths). One of these two is up to no good. After a first act in which nothing happens several times, the play improves considerably in the second half when a standoff arises in the pub and moral ambiguity comes into this otherwise simplistic story. Scenes between McGuire, Sheedy and their hostage Gina the barmaid stand out, but just as the tension is cranking up, the set revolves for the umpteenth time and the surreal comedy stylings of the copper and the poacher puncture it.
The play would work better on stage if the action was confined solely to the pub. Griffiths is strong as the duplicitous detective, and O’Neill evokes both suspicion and sympathy – even if his accent takes a tour of almost every country to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that Matt Milburn saves the day and their version of normalcy is restored.
The production is hampered by clumsy sound cues – at times the sound effects and the music drown out the dialogue, and scenic video, showing us the beautiful Yorkshire landscape, stutters, giving us day during a night scene and the same flock of birds flying in formation on a loop. It’s almost like a tech rehearsal rather than a production that’s well into its nationwide tour.
I can’t say I’m inspired to watch repeats of the series on ITV3. For me, this Heartbeat flatlined.