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Cliff: not the full Bronte

MUSICAL 'Heathcliff', The Academy, Birmingham
Cliff Richard miscast as Heathcliff? Stuff and nonsense, say those of us who can remember thrilling to Perry Como's definitive Antichrist, Bonnie Langford's blood-freezing Medea and Max Bygraves's never-to-be- forgotten Titus Andronicus. No, this is a part that Cliff was destined to play.

It's not just that Wuthering Heights is the one novel he admits to having read, you have to consider, too, the nature of Bronte's hero. With all that stuff about the "eternal rocks" and the descriptions of Heathcliff as arid whinstone, you feel that it would take a geologist rather than a psychiatrist to straighten the character out. Now cast your mind back to the days when the pop star was still young Harry Webb. Of all the Christian names available to him, what did he choose? Call me old fashioned, but I say that's Freudian.

Cliff has been giving women hot flushes for almost four decades and you can't help thinking that for the bulk of his fan club nowadays, this is a case of taking coals to Newcastle. Sitting in an audience of close on 4,000 of them at the opening night, I felt outnumbered in a way that I haven't since I covered a lesbian version of Peter Pan at the Drill Hall. I'd certainly have felt more a part of the occasion if I'd been wearing a white pleated skirt and smart little navy jacket. On a television phone- in about the previous night's performance, devoted admirers said at length what you'd expect. The anchor person wondered whether there were any criticisms. One woman confessed that, in the climactic Heathcliff and Cathy scene, Cliff could perhaps "work on his passion". With respect to this lady, I think she's got it all wrong. The secret of Cliff's appeal is that his sexiness is utterly devoid of dangerous passion or threat. He's ageless, not in the sense that something perfect is faultless but in the sense that a vacuum is airless. His is a vacuum-packed innocence and I can understand the charm of it. Elvis he never was and, sure enough, he gives you the kind of Heathcliff who, if he had a bit of a shave and trim, a girl could happily take home to meet her mum. Or a boy: in his book Hockney On Hockney the painter recalls how, back in the Sixties, he pinned to the wall a newspaper clipping with the headline "Two Boys Cling To Cliff All Night". David, mate, dream on.

Just how likeable and un-dangerous Cliff is was best epitomised for me by the final line-up. As women rushed to the stage, the beaming cast linked hands and swayed happily while singing over and over "the Devil Incaa- ar-nate". The phrase comes from one of Tim Rice's lyrics: is Heathcliff "the Devil Incarnate or / a misunderstood man"? But for all they were concentrating on the dark meaning of the line, the cast might just as well have been singing "a pina colaa-a-da". SingalongaSatan. And as for the much-talked-about moment when Cliff has to hit a pregnant woman, there was an audible reaction, yes, but it struck me as registering surprise at the novelty of the thing (like first seeing members of the Royal Family on It's a Knockout) rather than the moral disorientation of, say, seeing Esther Rantzen child-beating.

I wouldn't want to run Cliff down, though - he has a very pleasant singing voice which is still in bloody good nick, given his age. Wooden he may be, and that transatlantic accent of his gets into a terrible state trying to do the Yorkshire accent ("I shall not stand to be laffed at"). But the bloke has what you can only describe as integrity. His utter palpable belief in this project may be misguided, but it's touching - particularly since most of the other elements in Frank Dunlop's awful production seem to be out to sabotage him.

High on this list comes John Farrar's music. When Bunuel filmed a version of Wuthering Heights, he used the chromatic excruciations and hot-house eroticism of Tristan und Isolde. You wouldn't expect such intensity from a musical, but you might expect something better than the vapid pop pap Farrar dishes up. Nowhere is it deployed with dramatic intelligence. Take the use of reprise, where remembered emotion can be played off the emotion of the current scene. At Heathcliff's wedding to Isabella, there's a tripping, stiff-kneed number whose whole personality sounds quite ludicrous when it's reprised in, of all places, the graveyard scene.

Computer projections give you all kinds of sky: tequila sunrise skies; revolving lashes of Turneresque streaky bacon skies, etc. One-third of these projections had not been used at the preview because of a shortage of technical rehearsal time and other mishaps. Reviewing this preview, the arts editor of The Times did not inform his readers (a) that it was a preview he was reviewing; (b) that the production was, at this stage, incomplete; or (c) that the people were none the less paying full price. But then, The Times is to journalism what Heathcliff is to art.

About to make his flower-laden final exit, Cliff came back, stooped to pick up a teddy bear that someone had thrown and charmingly held it up for us to see. Presented with a fluffy toy, Bronte's Heathcliff (who hangs Isabella's dog, for God's sake) would drive a stake through its heart. Cliff, you felt, would give it a good home.

At The Academy, Birmingham, to 2 Nov (booking: 0121 200 2222), then Edinburgh, Manchester and London