Labatt's Apollo Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 12 February, 1997

To begin by unveiling a dark personal secret: I was in fact born on the birthday of, and at my sister's importunity named after, former Shadows bassist Terry "Jet" Harris. I might therefore be assumed to be almost genetically predisposed towards Cliff Richard, and indeed having read the savage press receptions given to Heathcliff on its Birmingham opening last autumn I turned up at the Hammersmith Apollo with a certain determination not to bay for blood.

For Heathcliff is not a disaster in the league of Bernadette or The Fields Of Ambrosia. Nor is it in their league in any sense: it was never intended to be a stand-alone stage musical, but was conceived by Sir Cliff as a dramatic vehicle for himself... well, semi-dramatic, then. Cliff, for all his stage and screen forays, is not an actor; what he does possess, after 40 years of experience, is a consummate skill at taking attitudinal cues from musical or lyrical moments and striking great shapes. His performance is entirely rooted in the songs, and in his own songs at that; when forced to lower from the side of the stage during other numbers he is frankly a little lost, and when reduced to the spoken word he is hamstrung by an erratic accent and an implausibly smouldering manner not that he cannot smoulder, simply that no-one suspends disbelief for an instant in his gruff, bearded persona. The gasps of shock previously reported at the moment when Cliff, or rather 'cliff, strikes his pregnant wife were entirely inaudible last Thursday evening.

So were many of Tim Rice's lyrics. The Apollo is more intimate than the Indoor Arena in Birmingham (albeit only in so far as New Mexico is more intimate than Texas), but even a dozen rows from the stage, most performers' lower registers were drowned by the band. Those words which could be caught included a fair batch of prime Rice-isms; I particularly liked "Don't think this match is suitable/Though you may be inscrutable" and this before the gratuitous sequence depicting Heathcliff's globetrotting, which amounts to no more than an excuse to whack in some African tribal masks and a Chinese lion-dance.
Director (and co-author of the book) Frank Dunlop seems to have given up at an early stage on any notions of theatre. Performers are consistently arranged in tableaux rather than dynamic scenes; now and again these images consist merely of a few people standing bolt upright against Joe Vanek's hi-tech atmospheric moor, complete with revolving crag and over-projections of sentences from Emily Brontë's novel. Long-time associate John Farrar knows precisely how to write Cliff-friendly music, but not much of it is memorable on a single hearing the hit single "A Misunderstood Man" lodges in the memory largely by dint of having been reprised a few times. The only other real musical highlight is some fine guitar-playing by 1970s one-hit wonder Gordon Giltrap as (for no very good dramatic reason) "the Troubadour".

Among the rest of the cast, Helen Hobson's stands out not only by reason of playing Cathy but because her excellent singing voice combines with the only real acting which goes on in two and a half hours. Otherwise, for all its glittering spectacle, this is scarcely more a stage musical of Wuthering Heights than David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" tour a couple of decades ago was of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has all the brooding menace of the Millennium Dome; after the incongruous clap-along curtain-call, the audience files out past a merchandising stall selling Heathcliff fridge magnets and, yes, Heathcliff teddy bears.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Terence Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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