Over the top with Cliff, Heathcliff and a critical cliffhanger

Pop goes Emily Bronte: First night suffers technical hitch but fans find idol 'utterly convincing' in pounds 3.5m musical

Sir Cliff Richard had donned his long black wig, grown menacing sideburns, even accidentally knocked out a fellow actor in rehearsal. But even his Heathcliff was powerless against technological unpredictability.

Finally realising a dream he had nurtured for more than 30 years, Sir Cliff, 56, played Emily Bronte's brooding hero in the opening of a new musical based on Wuthering Heights.

But the 4,000-strong full house to see Heathcliff at Birmingham's National Arena did not realise that the lavish show they were watching was a victim of computer error.

A third of the sophisticated computer projections were not used as a shortage of technical rehearsal time and other hi-tech mishaps caused their abandonment for the long-awaited first night of the pounds 3.5m production.

Critics were banned by the Cliff Richard organisation from attending this first night. It is to be hoped that members of the Emily Bronte Society suffered the same exclusion order.

This show and its score lacked the wild, swirling passion and obsessions of the book, often substituting instead pleasingly choreographed blandness as when, bizarrely, Kathy was urged in song not to marry Edgar Linton - "you know at best it's only mootable/ that this is Mr Right" - by dainty girlfriends with pretty bonnets, twirling umbrellas and looking like refugees from Gilbert and Sullivan.

But if this wasn't a night for Bronte-ites it certainly was for Cliff Richard fans, who applauded their hero rapturously. Fiona Wilkinson, 24, came from Australia to see the show, spending pounds 2,500 on the trip and tickets for seven performances. She cried throughout the first half, not at the state of her bank balance, but as a reaction to the opening tableau of Heathcliff at Kathy's grave. "Cliff is utterly convincing, the perfect lover," she said afterwards. Mother and daughter Eleanor and Kerry Winters, from Corby, said: "We will come again and we would consider reading the book now."

Sir Cliff adopted a creditable Yorkshire accent but even some of his hard-core fans could not restrain laughter when their idol went against type to protest: "I shall be as dirty as I please. I like to be dirty."

The star and the rest of the cast arrived in Birmingham yesterday, and in his eagerness to portray the demonic side of Heathcliff, Sir Cliff knocked out his fellow actor Jimmy Johnson in one of the rehearsal fight scenes.

Perhaps it was appropriate in this odd piece of casting. It was hard not to blink at Sir Cliff up on stage not only beating up his pregnant wife but also smoking opium. For this production travelled a lot further than Bronte's Yorkshire, exploring the time that Heathcliff was away from Wuthering Heights and imagining him as a ruthless merchant adventurer and opium trader.

Before yesterday's first night of the five-month, four-city tour, which has already sold 340,000 seats and taken a record pounds 8.5m, the Peter Pan of pop was determined to prove an affinity with English literature's most romantic and dangerous obsessive. "Quite a lot of people said I couldn't do this," he said. "He's the nice guy singing Living Doll. And every morning I looked in the mirror and thought, damn, I'm still Cliff Richard. But when I put the wig on I felt different. No, I've never been cast aside by a lover for someone else. I have nevertheless loved and felt love and lost love, wished someone would love me. All those feelings, we've all felt them."

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