Does the world really need another adaptation of The Wuthering Heights? I saw a musical adaptation (called Cathy: A Tale of Wuthering Heights) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, and in early 2022 the National Theater hosted the touring production of 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 started working on Wuthering Heights The Musical during lockdown as part of his course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and sought help from his father Mick, a songwriter and music producer, who wrote for Amy Winehouse and the Spandau frontman Ballet, Tony Hadley.
Later, when public health restrictions eased, Clare Lonsdale was brought on board. Lonsdale describes himself on his Soundcloud profile as “a pianist, piano teacher, composer, arranger and author of parody songs”. One of Lizzie Lister’s teachers at RCSSD, Emma Gersch, was so impressed with what her student had written that she agreed to lead the workshop. Turbine Theater audiences were either treated to or subjected to just over forty-five minutes of musical numbers and spoken dialogue from a show currently slated to last two hours of performance time (paste a gap somewhere, and that’s two hours and twenty minutes total).
From what I could tell, there doesn’t seem to be a drastic change to the main narrative points of the novel either, despite being told from the perspective of various characters, rather than Nelly, the main narrator of the novel. The way the musical numbers begin in the show follows the musical theater convention of arising from an expression of emotion so overwhelming that a song inevitably begins. Heathcliff (Carl Spencer) could have been more menacing: when he gives orders to the servants, it’s like a petulant child who wants a lollipop and wants it right away rather than the terrifying rage that not only befits the character but would make a strong and memorable dramatic effect.
There’s some lively choreography, but at times it proved distracting, particularly during a rather nice four-part harmony between Heathcliff, Edgar Linton (Luke Bayer), Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Natalie Elliott) and Edgar’s wife, Cathy (Lizzie Lister). I guess in a full production the movements would work well with, for example, moving image projections or a set with a revolution. Or both at the same time.
As this workshop performance contained excerpts from the full musical, it cannot be assumed that the material presented was entirely in chronological order: it wouldn’t surprise me if there were flashback scenes somewhere. The initial relatively high energy numbers quickly give way to more thoughtful tunes and melodies. That’s not problematic in itself – after all, what good would a big jazz hands dance routine do to depict a woman’s death after childbirth – but I hope to see a bit more variety in styles full length musicals.
Bayer’s Edgar speaks appropriately and softly: The production seems to want the audience to decide for themselves whether Cathy is ultimately more drawn to Heathcliff, her first love, or Edgar, given the 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 mostly move the story forward. It’s an opportunity to bring a famous story to life in a fresh and innovative way, and I wish the creative team the best of luck as they continue their journey with this musical.
Heathcliff CARL SPENCER
Cathy LIZZIE LISTER
Edgar LUKE BAYER
Isabelle NATALIE ELLIOTT
MARCO VENTURINI set
ANNA VAN DER WOLF set
Writer, lyricist and composer LIZZIE LISTER
Director EMMA GERSCH
Choreographer and Producer CHRISTOPHER TENDAI
Musical Director, Composer and Arranger MICK LISTER
Assistant director and playwright NYOKABI MACHARIA
Assistant Musical Director ROSIE WESTON