5 June 2014

Southwark Playhouse

In The HeightsAs various high-profile musicals fall foul of that fickle business we call show, closing way before their planned dates, there was one musical south of the river that became the hot ticket in the last couple of months. The UK première of Broadway hit In The Heights – which one four Tony Awards out of its thirteen nominations back in 2008, including Best Musical – recreates the heat, tensions and romances of the Washington Heights block in a sizzling, brilliant production.

With a cast who are right on top of their game, there’s barely a fault to be found. The small space at the Southwark Playhouse is filled with colour, song and vibrancy, and Drew McOnie’s choreography uses every inch – including the aisles between the seats – without it ever feeling cramped. The dancing in particular is thrilling as well as being absolutely clean and sharp: the fluid motions combined with thumping hip-hop moves create an exciting melting pot that reflects the culture of the city in which the action takes place.

As Usnavi, Sam Mackay guides us through the neighbourhood with charm and humour, but isn’t afraid to let a softer side show as events become more poignant in the second half. He exudes charisma – yet in that he is not alone, as it soon becomes apparent the rest of the cast are equally as enthralling. As Nina, Christina Modestou’s voice soars through the space, strong and rich but blending beautifully with – rather than overpowering – the vocals of others, most notably in her gorgeous duets with Benny (Wayne Robinson). Her mother Camila (Josie Benson) exudes power of a different kind, cutting in on the bickering between her daughter and her husband with an incredibly strong (if occasionally a little shouty – but hey, it works in this context) voice and a whole heapful of sass.

Elsewhere, Eve Polycarpou steals our hearts as the elderly, all-knowing Abuela Claudia, and the impromptu mass for her sudden passing is full of deep sorrow and quiet gratitude for her graceful, yet secretly difficult life. At the other end of the scale, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is predictably brilliant as fiery gossip Daniela. In contrast to the naive youngsters who at times struggle to find their way, Daniela radiates bravado and sex appeal and knows everyone’s business inside out, whilst revealing warm generosity in her actions. After seeing Hamilton-Barritt steal the show as Diana in the 2013 revival of A Chorus Line, I was looking forward to seeing her take to the stage once again. She plays the role of Daniela hilariously and faultlessly, and my only regret is she doesn’t get more stage time.

It’s not hard to get swept along in the blazing emotion, heat and colour of this production; the beat of the music, a mash-up of Latin and rap, of street music and Spanish salsas, carries you on the crest of its joyful wave and the whole show radiates joy and energy. It would simply be a travesty if this show doesn’t transfer somewhere; it certainly deserves to be seen again and again, and it would be interesting to see how the production works in a bigger space.

My only gripe about the evening is that, having arrived at the Southwark Playhouse not long before curtain up, the theatre’s unreserved seating policy meant I ended up in a restricted view seat, with my vision of the upper parts of the set obscured. I wouldn’t have minded if I’d paid for this grading of seat – after all, I’m used to life in the cheap seats – but I felt slightly hard done by having paid the same as those in the best seats in the house. However, this wasn’t enough to spoil a truly uplifting night at the theatre that left me buzzing with the joys of the Spanish beats and carnival colours as I stepped into the rather more grey streets of London.


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