Wuthering Heights


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I can’t think of a better match than Emily Brontë and Emma Rice: two renegade spirits, purveyors of verve and rebellion; two flawed geniuses, whose work is – love it or loathe it – undeniably compelling.

In this Wise Children production, Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. Anyone familiar with Rice’s previous work (at Kneehigh, for example) will know to expect a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. And that’s what we get. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. This is the sort of theatre that excites me.

Instead of Nelly Dean, we have The Moor, the landscape personified as a Greek chorus, whose Leader (Nandhe Bhebhe) narrates and placates, while her acolytes sing and dance their embodiments of weather, conscience and commentary. It’s a bold move, but it works. The setting is integral to Brontë’s novel; why not bring it to life? It’s also a neat way of conveying the labyrinthine plot in a mere three hours, so that we’re never in any doubt about who’s who, or how they’re all related, despite the too-similar names and the double-roles.

Adding to the bustle and busyness, there’s a live band on stage throughout (Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Pat Moran), as well as some stunning back projection, depicting turbulent skies and flocks of birds, which soar noisily into the clouds whenever someone dies. Rice’s signature puppetry puts in a brief appearance too, as the infant cuckoo, Heathcliff, lands in the Wuthering nest.

Rice foregrounds the differences between the Earnshaws and the Lintons: Hindley (Tama Phethean), Cathy (Lucy McCormick) and Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) are played as dark, almost monstrous figures, while Edgar (Sam Archer) and Isabella (Katy Owen) are light and clownish. This unevenness of tone serves to highlight how very dangerous the Earnshaws are, and it’s almost unbearable to witness the silly, foppish Lintons veer into their orbit, knowing that every encounter takes them closer to sealing their own dreadful fates. Owen garners many laughs with her cartoonish depiction of adolescent naïvety – she’s a gifted comedian – but Isabella is a petulant shrew in a tiger’s paw, and this is clearer here than in any other adaptation I have seen.

Emily Brontë purists will hate this show; it’ll give ’em the heeby-jeebies. But there’s a row of teenagers sitting behind me at the theatre tonight – they’re on a school trip – and they love it. I can hear them laughing and gasping, even exclaiming out loud. And Wuthering Heights is a YA book, isn’t it? A cautionary tale about a very, very toxic relationship, all raging hormones and melodrama, perfectly encapsulated on this anarchic stage.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

6 - Dominic Marsh as Macheath in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) by Kneehigh Theatre @ HOME Manchester (11-26 Sept 2015). Photo (c) Steve Tanner 5 - Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) by Kneehigh Theatre @ HOME Manchester (11-26 Sept 2015). Photo (c) Steve Tanner


Home, Manchester

Kneehigh’s reputation precedes them: we know before the show begins that we are in for an energetic, multi-disciplined, high-octane experience, and are well-prepared to be dazzled by what we see.

We’re not disappointed. With Dead Dog in a Suitcase, Kneehigh have successfully reinterpreted The Beggar’s Opera, restoring its original status as an anarchic polemic, using theatre as a means to rage against the machine, revelling in – as well as reviling – the writhing underbelly of our messed-up world.

There’s a veritable roll-call of notorious baddies: a corrupt politician, a ruthless businessman, a manipulative wastrel, a charming gangster. They’re all here, gloriously exaggerated and strutting their stuff. There’s a whole host of victims too, and they’re just as vociferous as the scum in charge. This is, as you might expect, as much a celebration of the underclass, as a vilification of those who oppress. It’s a radical reworking, but its roots in John Gay’s “low-born mucky people doing low-born mucky things to each other” original are clear for all to see.

And it’s relentless: at times, there is so much happening on stage that I don’t know where to look. This is disorienting, yes, but it’s also oddly exciting, and I spend the whole performance sitting forward in my seat, determined not to miss a thing.

In a show with this much going on, it’s hard to single out particular ideas, but the puppet show is certainly worth a mention, especially the cradle full of illegitimate babies. The meta-theatrical linking of Punch with Macheath underlines the heartless, senseless nature of the crimes Macheath commits. The scenes in the strip-club, The Slammerkin, have a similar effect, with grotesque, dilated bodies revealing the nasty truth about the venal punters who go there. It’s a frantic, furious and fabulous ensemble piece, and the story builds and builds until it’s almost unbearable.

And the music! Oh. It’s so riotous and infectious that it’s impossible not to get involved. It assaults and envelops the audience, encompassing a whole range of styles and working in an almost primal way. The violin, played by Patrycja Kujawska, is breathtaking in itself, and the cataclysmic, all-stops-out ending leaves me genuinely awe-struck.

If there’a quibble it’s a minor one: this play is actually quite exhausting to watch. A little tightening here and there to bring down the running time, would benefit both players and audience, I think.

But this is a mesmerising slice of theatre, and definitely one that you should catch before it heads off on tour.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Sneak Peek at: Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs)

Dominic Marsh as Macheath in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at Liverpool Everyman (c) Steve Tanner (2) Sarah Wright in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at Liverpool Everyman (c) Steve_Tanner

It’s an exciting opportunity… not to mention a real privilege, to be allowed a sneak preview of a theatre company rehearsing for their latest production. But that’s exactly what I get from Kneehigh who are currently prepping their production of Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) at Home, Manchester. The show opens there officially on the 11th of September and then heads out on tour around the UK.

As I settle into a front row seat I’m presented with a view of the entire thirteen strong company. To my left, there’s a band, featuring guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a whole plethora of assorted instruments. To my right stands a traditional Punch and Judy theatre and a veritable menagerie of creepy looking puppets (always a good sign) including a row of rosy faced babies in a cot, who, we’re assured, are the ‘bastard offspring of Macheath.’

Director Mike Shepherd and musical director Charles Hazlewood stand up and say a few words. The show is, of course, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, (1728) itself radically reworked by Bertholt Brecht as The Threepenny Opera in 1928. ‘This version,’ says Shepherd, ’gives the Beggar’s Opera back its teeth.’ He tells us that the story is a musical satire, prescient for our times, and that it’s a perfect reflection of an age of austerity and outrage – ‘a cathartic production in every sense of the word.’

Hazlewood adds that it’s been a wonderful privilege working with Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre Company, and says that their marvellous generosity of spirit has injected a sense of humanity into what is, at heart, a bleak and harrowing storyline.

‘The play begins with the contract killing of the city Mayor,’ says Shepherd. ‘Which will give you some idea of how dark the story is.’

Then without further ado, we’re treated to a ten minute selection. The band punch out a lively reggae rhythm, the cast leap into action, there is singing and dancing and movement and puppets – and I sit there mesmerised by the way the show is coming together, after only a relatively short rehearsal time.

Afterwards I ask if I might have a quick chat with MacHeath (Dominic Marsh) and Polly Peachum (Angela Hardie), so we seek out a quiet space where I can record their answers without too much background noise. I begin by pointing out that the pair are about to take on one of the most infamous duos in theatrical history. How do they feel about that challenge?

Angela: It’s very exciting to be able to take on these characters, because there are so many dimensions to them. They’re not just good or bad, weak or strong, they have the full run of humanity with all its glory and ugliness and for young actors that’s just an exceptional opportunity.

Did they have any qualms about taking on the roles?

Dominic: No, I think that one of the healthiest things about the rehearsal process is that deference is left outside the door. The Beggar’s Opera is called the longest running musical and all those juke box musicals in the West End that we’re so familiar with these days probably stem from it. But there were no qualms at all.

I point out that there are a lot of different disciplines to master in this show – acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, puppetry. It must be a tall order trying to perform so many of them to the best of their abilities. Exhausting too, I shouldn’t wonder.

Dominic: It is an incredibly tiring, but very rewarding way to work, but a lot of Kneehigh projects are like that, they’re these big, chaotic shows that create a whole world on the stage. Everything’s so visceral and powerful, there’s light and shade, dark humour, wonderful romantic moments, everything you could possibly want.

What qualities, I wonder, do the actors think they share with their onstage personas? Does Angela identify with Polly?

Angela: Oh yes, I hope so! I get to do such a great journey with this piece, I start out naïve and find out about life the hard way. I think anyone who’s ever had their heart broken… and I have… will identify with her. Mind you, I haven’t quite graduated to running a gang yet, but I suppose there’s still time…

And Dominic? MacHeath is surely nobody’s idea of a positive role model?

Dominic: He is rather dark. I’m not sure I identify with him on many levels, but we all have within us the kernel of good and evil, we’re all capable of being misunderstood and I think that MacHeath has his own valid reasons for going down the route he goes down. He’s almost like a Robin Hood figure, shining a light on the corporate conspiracies that are going on all around him, which we all know are happening all the time. When we started rehearsing this there was that stuff about MP’s expenses and… well, you just have to look at what’s happening now…

For both of them it’s their first appearance at Home, Manchester’s hub for the performing arts. What do they make of the place?

Angela: It’s lovely, it’s such an exciting place to work, it’s all brand new. We’ve been bowled over by how friendly and accommodating everyone is.

Dominic: There’s such an exciting buzz about this piece and also about the venue. I think the two of them will slot together really well.

So they’re both looking forward to opening night?

They tell me that they can’t wait.

Well, I assure them, that makes three of us.

(Our review of Dead Dog In A Suitcase will follow soon.)