Chris Eldon Lee reviews Hotbuckle’s touring production of ‘Wuthering Heights’

With ‘Wuthering Heights’, Hotbuckle Theatre Company has come of age.

Previous productions might have been predominantly polite and pastoral; with a slightly melodramatic baddie just to get the blood coursing. But this is much more heavy weight and hard-hitting, with straight-faced evil … personified.  

The usual Hotbuckle Tom-foolery is still present and correct (director Adrian Preater really just can’t help himself) but this time the comedy is confined to quarters. The jocular moments are soon subsumed by the darkly menacing episodes. It’s the nasty pieces of work that take centre stage; as befits Emily Bronte’s tragic tale.

It’s also a very inventive production. The fine company of four conjure evil out a handful of bits and bobs and a spare red light, and create an eerie sound track before our very ears. So, when stern Heathcliff leaves in the midst of a storm, he is accompanied by the piercing (human) howl of a dog, a rattling thunder sheet, a wild wind machine and a mournful musical saw. It’s so effective, it tempts you to tug at your coat-collar.

But I was also clinging onto Bronte’s coat-tails.

Hers is a complex mind, telling a multi-layered story, and Hotbuckle rightly put most of their energies into clarity, rather than commentary. Much of the narration and essential backstory are neatly handled as fireside chats between urbane and charming Mr. Lockwood (Praeter at his comical best, finding punchlines in the unlikeliest of places) and Jen Holt’s gushing, bustling Mrs. Dean. I was thoroughly entertained and vitally informed by their cosy chit chat. And chilled by the characters they were gossiping about.

Dean Gribble’s Heathcliff is pure granite. He is surly and sullen and his storm soliloquy at the end of the first half verges on finely controlled madness; whilst his return - after three years of self-imposed exile - is gently touching, yet still filled with tension. It’s almost as if a cold chill follows him round the stage.  

The subject of his desires is the rosebud-lipped, red-haired Mimi Edwards as Cathy (and later young Catherine). She creates a character who has self-punishment to perfection. She is, by turns, pig-headed and tempestuous enough to marry a man she doesn’t love; whilst her delicate explanation of Cathy’s true heart’s desire is a lovely moment of pure unguardedness. The play’s sudden swings of mood from tenderness to rumbustiousness are beautifully handled and the whole production is wonderfully disciplined. Some crucial scenes last barely ten seconds … whilst the cast linger to enjoy clever moments such as the silent, synchronised and tight-lipped sewing of two characters who clearly don’t get on.

I confess, my previous knowledge of ‘Wuthering Heights’ was limited to three and a half minutes of Kate Bush; but Hotbuckle has inspired me to dust off the novel and give it a go. This is the company’s best yet. On the strength of this, ‘King Lear’ must surely beckon.