Review: Wuthering Heights, Royal Exchange Theatre

Most literary buffs, or indeed anyone who has studied English to a higher degree than reading The Secret Life of Adrian Mole, will be familiar with the story and context of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. However, if you were going to see Adrian Sheridan’s Brechtian version of this well loved story then you’re in for a shock. Sheridan, along with director Bryony Shanahan, take this Brontë classic and completely flip it on its head.

The set at the Royal Exchange is in keeping with the contemporary theme this venue loves to adopt production after production, but the addition of Cecile Tremolieres period-accurate costume, helps to establish this production of Wuthering Heights as a cut above the rest. The production starts with the introduction of musicians Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie who add an extra dimension to this show, a hidden depth to the story that could only be accessed with dulcet folk tones and heavy electric guitar. This production would sorely miss their presence had they not been there.

The story starts classically by introducing the Earnshaw family and their relationships. The power dynamic between father and children is instantly established and it’s clear to the audience that Mr Earnshaw isn’t one to be pushed around. What isn’t immediately evident, however, is the fragility behind Hindley’s character that is portrayed so pleasingly by Gurjeet Singh. The dynamic between Heathcliff and Cathy develops throughout the course of the play with the portrayal of youth and the incorruptibility of these characters played beautifully and innocently by Alex Austin and Rakhee Sharma. The casting choice of Austin wasn’t immediately obvious to me, but as the play progressed and you see the steady decline of Heathcliff’s sanity, it became abundantly clear to me that Austin is such an incredibly capable actor who can, and indeed will, carry this show for the entirety of its run.

Another character who carries this show from beginning to end is Nelly, played by Samantha Power. The powerful yet reserved nature Power exudes is moving. The heartache and turmoil she faces is presented in such a way that you can’t take your eyes from her on stage, even when she is a minor character in the scene. I was unsure of the introduction of the rest of the cast, comprising of Dean Fagan and Rhiannon Clements, and was fearful they would be lost in the supremacy of this story, but in fact they add a lightness to the production that I think was lacking until their characters were introduced.

There are small elements that seemed to distract from the play, but these are only minor. The use of the Yorkshire accent compliments the story well, and I am glad the creatives chose to keep it. At times, however, some of the more important scenes were lost due to the shape of the space. During scenes such as Cathy’s meeting with Heathcliff, much of the dialogue was inaudible from Rakhee Sharma when she was facing away from the audience. It was a shame as the production as a whole is beautifully remarkable and I urge anyone and everyone to go and see it, especially fans of the original story. I hope you will be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Wuthering Heights is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 7 March 2020. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Exchange Theatre website.