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Theatre review: Wuthering Heights, Battersea Arts Centre, London

Imaginatively staged with fearless physicality, but low on props and dressings

If you’re imagining a stage version of a cosy tea-time telly adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic, think again. Experimental theatre-maker Peter McMaster leads this troupe of four young, Scottish men in delivering a gutsy, gusty gale of a performance. Sometimes it’s comically bonkers, sometimes it’s tender, and sometimes it delivers a high octane howl that captures the doomed intensity of the novel.

If it achieves this, however, it’s not by staying at all faithful to the source; there can’t be more than a page or two of text used. The all-male company intersperse elements of the story with meditations - presumably from their own lives - on masculinity, be that childhood memories of gentle interactions with their fathers or hopes for their own futures. We’re introduced to each actor in turn, with brief personality sketches: this one has addictive tendencies, that one’s an introvert, this one is in an 11-year relationship; that one enjoys masturbating. Later, there’s a barked litany of questions about modern male identity and sexuality, going on for pages, asking about everything from porn consumption to fantasies about other men.

At the beginning, we’re asked to “bear with it” and “be honest”, and by being honest and baring all (literally, at one point) themselves, the company largely carries the audience with them. The fact that they puncture proceedings with humour helps; they’re clearly aware of the heightened ridiculousness of some scenes, and get us firmly on side (and face up to a looming pop-cultural ghost) with a downright hilarious choreographed group dance to Kate Bush’s barmy hit “Wuthering Heights” early on.

With only a few candlesticks and a couple of intentionally terribly-fitting dresses for props and costumes, this is poor theatre, imaginatively staged with a fearless physicality. And as if the cross-casting wasn’t enough, they also spend quite some time playing horses: Heathcliff’s steed as a main narrator offers an equine view on human affairs. Their trotting and snorting is another source of comedy, albeit one that veers a bit too far towards Monty Python at points.

The more personal, devised, expose all your hopes’n’fears stuff can totter into over-indulgence, and how these segments relate to the story of Cathy and Heathcliff often remains obscure. Presumably, Heathcliff as classic alpha male, dark, angry and brooding, was taken as a jumping off point for their explorations of masculinity. But trying to make such connections gives your brain a good workout; this Wuthering Heights makes you smile, but it also keeps you on your toes.

To 26 Oct; bac.org.uk