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Theatre Review: Heartbreak Hotel

If you’ve ever suffered through the grief ridden pangs of a breakup, and I’m guessing most of us have, then Heartbreak Hotel currently running at Q Theatre in Auckland may well offer you some solace. 

The show features Karin McCracken as a woman coming to terms with end of a relationship with someone she thought was the love of her life. But this is no ordinary play as it ditches the usual ‘act’ structure and instead resembles a comedic TED Talk interspersed with moments of song and occasional acted scenes depicting random hookups, parties, and the pivotal moments in the relationship that ended.

To reinforce this is not your typical theatrical experience, the staging is very stylised. There is a swathe of carpet, several banks of LED lights of the type you’d see advertising sales in a shop in the 90s, and a small stand with a synthesiser on it. Any props such as the occasional chair, drinking glasses and bottles of wine are brought in from behind the main staging area when needed. 

McCraken begins with a slight intro and then the story unfolds.  

The TED like moments consist of her explaining the science and biochemistry behind falling in love and the consequent emotions when a relationship ends. 

There are lessons about neurotransmitters and how different parts of the brain and nervous system react to our emotional state and how one part seemingly overrides another. 

But rather than it seeming like a recitation of a text book, McCracken delivers it all in an incredibly engaging, personal and amusing way. She cleverly anthropomorphises parts of the immune and nervous systems in such a fascinating way that I imagine if biology was taught this way in school the pass rates would go up considerably.

Mixed in amongst the science are songs which she delivers really well despite an early disclaimer that she can’t sing. These bits of music are at times both poignant and a deeply ironic commentary on the nature of love and loss. 

There are many deliberately melodramatic moments that remind us that the behaviours and thoughts that accompany grief can actually be quite funny and slightly disturbing if you are a dispassionate observer rather than the one caught up in it. 

Simon Leary acts as McCracken’s foil. He provides all the ‘others’ – casual dates, her doctor, and of course the man at the centre of the story – ‘the one’ who broke her heart. All of these characters wear the same outfit, but Leary manages to bring a subtle individualism to each one, so it really does feel as though we are seeing a multitude of people.

The scenes where the the two actors engage with one another work really well.  They take us through various dates and scenarios that always seem to go awry and they are full of awkward interactions with topics ranging from dating apps to taxes and discussions about when it is acceptable to date again after a breakup. 

This gives the the audience a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing human dynamics at play in the dating scene. We’ve all been there, we all know the excitement and the pitfalls. 

Heartbreak Hotel is a special and quite epic exploration of the human condition and is full of both pathos and delightful comedy. McCracken is a natural story teller who skilfully weaves each story element together to make a piece of theatre that is a delight to watch.  

Photo credit – Andi Crown


Q Theatre – Loft

28 November – 2 December 2023



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