Review by Daz Gale
After a storming few years including well received shows such as RENT, The Wiz and Cinderella, the Hope Mill Theatre are ready to Go-Go with their 2023 programming, kicking off with the European premiere of Head Over Heels. This was a show I saw in Broadway back in 2018 (when All That Dazzles was nothing more than a glint in my eye) – however I didn’t really get it at the time. When this new production was announced, I was interested to see if it would fare any better for me this time. After all, theatre is such a varied spectrum and I have liked and disliked differing productions of the same show in the past. So the question is would I be able to get the beat this time?
Head Over Heels is primarily a jukebox musical featuring the music of the Go-Gos. If you’re not immediately familiar with them, that may be because they were substantially bigger in America, only troubling the top 40 once in the UK (with a song that isn’t actually in the show). However, numbers like ‘We Got The Beat’ and ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ have stood the test of time and you may be more familiar with one of their members, Belinda Carlisle, whose biggest hit ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ features among the musical numbers. Basically think 80s pop-rock and you’re there.
The story of Head Over Heels is loosely based on ‘The Arcadia’ by Sir Phillip Sidney. Following the escapades of a Royal family as they venture to save their beloved kingdom from extinction, and the loss of their precious ”beat”. Various dynamics are at play as each of the characters discover something new about themselves and their own hearts, in a show that has love at its overarching theme.
Conceived by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder, this is a show that doesn’t try to take itself seriously. Unashamedly silly, Head Over Heels aims to make you laugh at every opportunity while still carrying a deceptive amount of depth as it carries a beautiful message of acceptance and inclusivity. While the writing can be hard to become accustomed to initially as it mixes language befitting the time ‘The Arcadia’ was written with modern references in a mix that is distinctive and humorous if baffling at times. When it is funny though, it is hilarious with a particularly rip-roaring scene seeing Pamela (Jenny O’Leary) reciting poetry that gets more and more explicit each time.
The versatile but always wonderful Hope Mill set is stripped back in comparison to its more high-tech productions. Instead, the space is given to the incredible cast to fill which they do with ease. Though the costume designs perhaps weren’t quite as strong as you would have liked and the choice to have words like “SHEEP” and “WOMAN” displayed on actors and the word “BUSH” on a prop maybe didn’t land with the tongue in cheek humour that was anticipated, these issues were overlooked thanks to much stronger production elements such as Jamie Platts lighting and truly impressive choreography from Tom Jackson Greaves, who also did a fantastic job directing.
The best thing going for this production of Head Over Heels, is the cast in itself. Some of the very best the UK has to offer, they are all of the highest standard, displaying pure joy in the madness of the story which transcends beyond the stage, allowing you to immerse yourself in this weird and wacky world.
Luke Bayer follows one of my own personal standout performances of 2022 with DIVA: Live From Hell with another masterclass performance. As Musidorus, Luke exudes charisma as he plays the Shepherd boy trying to woo his love while needing to deceive his family as his female alter-ego. Always able to tap into the motives of the character with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Luke makes it impossible to not fall in love with him, thanks to his wonderful performance.
Maiya-Quansah Breed is breathtakingly brilliant as Philoclea, showcasing gorgeous vocals and versatility in a performance that veers from sweet to comedic. Fed Zanni and Julie Stark form a formidable double act as Basilius and Gynecia while Daniel Page is a comedic highlight as Dametas, whose varying reactions each time one of the four “flags” representing prophecies fall provides perhaps the funniest moments during the show.
A standout among the phenomenal cast is Jenny O’Leary as Pamela in a commanding performance that showcases all of her multiple talents including a sensational singing voice and immaculate comic timing. Her relationship with Mopsa was the one of the three pairings that piqued my interest most, helped in part by a truly accomplished performance by Khadija Sallet (who may well have delivered THE vocal performance of the night. No easy task considering the talents of everybody on the stage).
The main cast is completed by Iz Hesketh who dominates proceedings as Pythio. Any time they set foot on the stage, they ensure all eyes are on them in a performance that demands to be taken seriously (as seriously as possible in a show as silly as this anyway). Showing unrivalled stage presence and charisma, Iz is a force to be reckoned with and completes a truly impressive starring cast.
No matter how familiar you are with the back catalogue of The Go-Go’s (and Belinda Carlisle) there is something for everyone in the music for Head Over Heels. ‘We Got The Beat’ is an immediate earworm, whether it’s the first time you have heard it or not. ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ is every bit as satisfying as you would hope while other musical highlights include ‘Mad About You’ and ‘Automatic Rainy Day’. With such addictive and catchy tunes, it’s easy to see why The Go-Go’s back catalogue is so loved, and Arlene McNaught’s musical direction brilliantly brings these to life.
Ultimately, Head Over Heels is a lot of fun. It might not be the smartest show in the world but sometimes all you want in life is a bit of camp silliness, and that’s what this does exceptionally well. Add to that a beautiful message buried in-between all the madness and you are left with a show that is as fun as it gets. Performed by a truly terrific cast, Head Over Heels is theatre escapism at its finest. My lips won't be sealed when I say I was mad about the show this time around - It’s safe to say I definitely got the beat this time around.
Head Over Heels plays at The Hope Mill Theatre until 4th March. Tickets from hopemilltheatre.co.uk
Photos by Pamela Raith