A car bumps down a single-track road, pulling up outside a broken-down Scottish farmhouse. This is, we discover, an unlikely place of refuge: a bolt-hole for a Hollywood star and her one-time boyfriend, seeking distance from the scandal that's engulfed them. But this isn't a story of sexual misdeeds – we're witnessing a loss of innocence of a different kind, as we learn how these two people tried to change the world, and how they paid the price for their optimism.
The nature of that scandal is one of Heartlands' many secrets – revealed in a series of flashback scenes, drawn from the characters' shared past. It's a time-worn theatrical device, but it gains fresh energy here from composer Rebecca Herd's haunting, folk-inspired original score, which both accompanies and sets the tone for the characters' memories. It's an especially effective technique when lyrics and dialogue are interleaved, though director Amy Gilmartin is wise enough not to play that card too often.
There are occasional flashes of unexpected humour (actor Clare Ross, in particular, does a nice line in knowing asides) but the predominant mood is wistful, reflecting on both the loss of a friendship and the defeat of youthful ideals. These are thoughts we can all identify with – and the play has proved more in tune with the zeitgeist than its creators can possibly have imagined. In recent weeks, we've seen news stories around mendacious charity fundraising, Internet shaming and the slaughter of endangered species; all these topics feature at one point or another in Dave Fargnoli's complex script.
But this might, I think, highlight something of a problem. Though the play proceeds at a well-measured pace, it's chock-filled with big philosophical thoughts – and inevitably lacks the time or energy to properly explore all of them. To take a random example, one line of dialogue tosses out the intriguing idea that helping someone is the same as controlling them; there's a whole other script to be written around that concept, but here it's mentioned and discarded so quickly that it becomes an active distraction.
The script's own cleverness grows overpowering too, with multiple call-backs to the opening scene giving the unfair impression that it doesn't know quite how to end. So Fargnoli might ask himself whether less could mean more – but Heartlands is a thought-provoking and tightly-performed production, delivered with nuanced sensitivity by Ross and her fellow actor Joe Johnson. A simple and truthful play, it's an eloquent comment on the emptiness of soundbites… and a reminder of how important it is to have a place to call home.