Wuthering Heights (Ambassadors Theatre)
The National Youth Theatre adapts Emily Bronte's classic novel
The Brontes are big in London right now. Over at the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic's five-star adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's tragic love story Jane Eyre is delighting audiences. And now the plucky young National Youth Theatre have taken on a Bronte of their own. Emily Bronte's love story of a very different sort, Wuthering Heights, features in their annual West End season.
Wuthering Heights is one of the most haunting and beautiful novels ever written. Set on the Yorkshire moors, the intense tale tells of Cathy Earnshaw and her adopted brother Heathcliff who fall in love but are doomed to be apart.
Stephanie Street's contemporary version for the NYT opens with Cathy and Heathcliff being reunited at her graveside and looking back over their past. It's a watery, lacklustre beginning and Cecilia Carey's ghostly designs – with actors' faces lit-up behind a big translucent sheet at the back of the stage – don't do much to make it feel any stronger.
But once the story gets going, Street's adaptation moves along at an impressive pace. Street makes it very much about race. The strange orphan 'cuckoo' Heathcliff is racially abused from the beginning. The name-calling from his so-called family makes his desertion and ultimate desire for revenge all the more understandable.
But the conceit of having several actors playing Cathy and Heathcliff as they get older jars. It feels mainly as though it's an attempt to make sure as many of the ensemble as possible get their moment onstage. The chopping and changing means it's hard to connect with the characters.
There are some strong performances from the young cast, specifically Oliver West and Conor Neaves as the young Heathcliff and Alice Feetham as Ellen. The company do their best to draw out the characters, but ultimately the adaptation tries a little too hard to re-invent the tale for the theatre. They needn't have bothered. Emily Bronte's masterful story would be enough to work its own dark magic pretty much anywhere it was told.
Wuthering Heights runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 December