Review: In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

The star of In The Heights is without a doubt Drew McOnie’s incredible choreography. Taking in everything from break dance to ballet, via contemporary dance and cheeky nods to hiphop, McOnie barely lets the cast rest for a moment, and man alive is the show the better for it.

Plot-wise, In The Heights a little thin and at times cliched, but when the talented cast start to sing and dance, you just don’t care. The cast are uniformly superb, acting their socks off and imbuing what could be pretty two-dimensional characters with real life and soul. The music, too, is fabulous – latin rhythms and pulsating drums underpinning hummable melodies and real belters (Lin-Manuel Miranda). The band, cleverly incorporated into takis’s set, are on fire.

Christina Modestou’s Nina has an epic pair of lungs, matched by Emma Kingston as a sweet Vanessa and Eve Polycarpou as Claudia. All three also show a softer side, performing well in mellower love songs and duets. David Bedella as the loving but frustrated father strikes just the right balance between the two, and Josie Benson as the feisty mother is good fun. Sam Mackay raps and sings brilliantly as Usnavi, the orphaned young man trying to make his way in the world, and manages to be both tough and tender. The women, though, are the most interesting, all trying to make their way in the world in the face of poverty, crime and family pressures.

Yes, the plot is sappy, and yes, the story is pretty much resolved by the interval, but the two-and-a-bit hours fly by thanks to McOnie’s moves and Miranda’s score. There are echoes of Oliver! and West Side Story, and nods to Cole Porter, but Miranda’s pulsating score and McOnie’s blistering choreography are in their own league. Every song is a toe-tapper, and the cast’s voices are hugely impressive.

The show veers between feeling like a huge party and tugging at the heartstrings, mostly without tipping over into mawkishness. Luke Sheppard’s direction is sure and deft, keeping the pace intense and the energy sky-high. You will struggle to find a harder working group of people than this cast, especially in the ensemble numbers. The group sequences are genuinely exciting, and performed faultlessly.

McOnie’s choreography beautifully illustrates the claustrophobia of feeling trapped in the minutiae of gossip and low expectations, but I do wonder if Southwark Playhouse’s modest space is big enough to contain this show. It’s intense and thrilling to watch a show of this calibre so close-up, but I’d love to see how In The Heights would develop if it was given more room to breathe – quite apart from the fact that those in front row occasionally looked a little too close for comfort to some flying kicks. Someone get this show a West End transfer.

In The Heights is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 June. For more information and tickets, visit Southwark Playhouse’s website.