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Wuthering Heights – The Musical Workshop at The Turbine Theatre

Does the world really need another adaptation of Wuthering Heights? I saw a musical adaptation (called Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, and early in 2022 the National Theatre hosted the touring production from Wise Children. There are at least two operas based on the novel, and at least five films, including one released in 1939 starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and another released in 1970 starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall. But fair play to Lizzie Lister, who began work on Wuthering Heights The Musical during lockdown as part of her course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and enlisted the help of her father Mick, a songwriter and music producer, who has written for the likes of Amy Winehouse and Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley.

Wuthering Heights - The Musical WorkshopLater, when public health restrictions eased, Clare Lonsdale was brought on board. Lonsdale describes herself on her Soundcloud profile as “a pianist, piano teacher, composer, arranger and parody song writer”. One of Lizzie Lister’s teachers at RCSSD, Emma Gersch, was so impressed by what her student had written that she agreed to direct the workshop. Audiences at the Turbine Theatre were either treated or subjected to just over forty-five minutes of musical numbers and spoken dialogue from a show currently envisaged to be two hours long in performance time (stick an interval in somewhere, and it’s two hours and twenty minutes total).

From what I could tell, there doesn’t seem to be any radical departure either from the novel’s main narrative points, although it is told from various characters’ perspectives, rather than from Nelly, the main narrator in the novel. The manner in which musical numbers begin in the show follows the musical theatre convention of arising out of such an overwhelming expression of emotion that a song inevitably starts. Heathcliff (Carl Spencer) could have been more menacing: when he orders the servants about, it is like a petulant child who wants a lollipop and wants it Right Now rather than the terrifying rage that not only befits the character but would make for a strong and memorable dramatic effect.

There is some sprightly choreography, but occasionally it proved to be distracting, particularly during a rather beautiful four-part harmony between Heathcliff, Edgar Linton (Luke Bayer), Edgar’s sister Isabella (Natalie Elliott) and Edgar’s wife Cathy (Lizzie Lister). I suppose in a full production the movements would work well with, for instance, projections of moving images, or a set with a revolve. Or both at once.

As this workshop performance contained extracts from the full musical, it cannot be assumed the material presented was entirely in chronological order: it would not surprise me if there were flashback scenes in there somewhere. The initial relatively high energy numbers quickly give way to more reflective tunes and melodies. This isn’t problematic in itself – after all, what would be the point in a big jazz hands dance routine to portray the death of a woman after childbirth – but I would hope to see a little more variety in musical styles in the full-length version.

Bayer’s Edgar is appropriately well-spoken, and softly spoken at that: the production seems to want the audience to work out for themselves whether Cathy is ultimately more drawn to Heathcliff, her first love, or Edgar, given the sheer differences between the two men. Whether this is just another musical with a love triangle remains to be seen. But it has potential, and the songs more often than not drive the story forward. This is an opportunity to bring to life a famous story in a fresh and innovative way, and I wish the creative team well as their journey with this musical continues.

*******

Cast
Heathcliff CARL SPENCER
Cathy LIZZIE LISTER
Edgar LUKE BAYER
Isabella NATALIE ELLIOTT
Ensemble MARCO VENTURINI
Ensemble ANNA VAN DER WOLF

Creatives
Writer, Lyricist and Composer LIZZIE LISTER
Director EMMA GERSCH
Choreographer and Producer CHRISTOPHER TENDAI
Musical Director, Composer and Arranger MICK LISTER
Assistant Director and Dramaturg NYOKABI MACHARIA
Assistant Musical Director ROSIE WESTON

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