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jaydarcy
3rd February 2023

Review: Head Over Heels

You might not fall head over heels in love with The Go-Go’s musical but it’s the perfect show to see this LGBT+ History Month
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Review: Head Over Heels
Maiya Quansah-Breed, Luke Bayer and the companyPhoto: Pamela Raith

It’s always exciting seeing a play or musical that you know very little about. I knew that Head Over Heels was a jukebox musical using the music of The Go-Go’s (the most successful all-female rock band of all time), and that was enough to get me excited. The musical also throws in a couple of songs by the band’s lead singer, Belinda Carlisle, who I’m seeing (and reviewing) in a fortnight!

The musical is not a biographical musical, however. Oh no. It’s actually based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Yes, they’ve only gone and turned the Arcadia into a rock musical!

Head Over Heels adheres more closely to the Old Arcadia than the better-known, revised New Arcadia. It follows the royal family of Arcadia on their journey to keep their famous “Beat”, with the King attempting to outrun four prophesies that will see the end of his reign.

Maiya Quansah-Breed, Luke Bayer, and the company. Photo: Pamela Raith

Sadly, the musical’s book is a little thin. At times, it appears to just be scaffolding used to tenuously connect one song to another (to another to another); each song, a riotous showcase of the cast’s tremendous talent.

The music is, of course, marvellous, the singing is sublime, and the choreography is camp, creative and chaotic in the best way. The opening number is ‘The Beat’ (The Go-Go’s biggest hit, ‘We Got the Beat’), a loud, rompy, and energetic number that welcomes the audience to Arcadia. Belinda Carlisle’s debut single, ‘Mad About You’, is sang in the first act and reprised a few times; its romantic, magical melody stayed with me throughout.

The second act opened with the title song, dragging us right back into this fantastical realm. The second act featured some of the musical’s best numbers, such as ‘This Old Feeling’, which is sang by the King, Basilius (Fed Zanni), and Queen, Gynecia (Julie Stark). The hilarious number sees (spoiler) the husband and wife accidentally commit adultery with each other; it’s far-fetched and farcical but Zanni and Stark somehow make it believable.

Zanni and Stark are also the lucky actors who get to take on Carlisle’s signature song, ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, alongside Luke Bayer (as lead character Musidorus) and the ensemble.

The music numbers are certainly where the play shines, for they are where most of the attention and creativity have gone. If you are not familiar with Arcadia, you might be forgiven for wondering if the story has been built and written around the music.

Iz Hesketh and the company. Photo: Pamela Raith

Whilst the book relies on archetypes and caricatures, with most characters offering nothing new, its progressive gender and sexual politics must be applauded. The gender-fluid oracle, Pythio (played to perfection by Iz Hesketh), is completely captivating. Hesketh plays with liminality and duality, not just regarding gender but also character and demeanour, repeatedly transitioning from an ethereal, mystical creature to something quite the opposite.

Whilst Pythio is a joy to watch, there’s another gender revelation at the end of the play which feels a little cheap, forced and unnecessary; the play has already gotten its message across, and this sudden revelation feels a little like overkill. That said, (spoiler) the plot point of a man pretending to be a woman to invade the privacy of the woman he loves is a little sketchy, especially in the current culture wars, so having that character reveal that they are, in fact, non-binary arguably escapes that criticism.

Then there’s the (another spoiler, sorry) lesbian love affair between Pamela (Jenny O’Leary) and Mopsa (Khadija Sallet). Pamela’s lesbianism is hinted at from the very beginning; she’s the most sought-after maiden in the kingdom but she cannot find a man to her liking. The foreshadowing gradually becomes more overt. There’s an hilarious scene in which she writes a poem about her perfect partner but cannot think of anything that rhymes with “wits”, “China”, and “runt”.

The script’s slapstick and farcical comedy will surely be a hit for British audiences though it can at times overshadow the play’s progressive politics. Towards the end, the script wants to be taken seriously, with an undeniably emotional speech delivered by the majestic Maiya Quansah-Breed, followed by a touching ensemble-led number. However, it’s a little jarring because, so far, the tone has been sex & jokes & rock & roll.

Maiya Quansah-Breed, Luke Bayer and the company. Photo: Pamela Raith

Most of the characters are pretty two-dimensional (sometimes with obvious, forced character development) but that is a convention of farce. However, the performances are all remarkable.

The cast is led by Luke Bayer (Musidorus), best-known for winning a BroadwayWorld Award for playing Alternate Jamie in the original West End cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and, more recently, starring in the European premiere of Diva: Live From Hell! Bayer is a real bundle of camp; he’s a joy to watch onstage.

The female lead (Philoclea) is played by Manchester’s own Maiya Quansah-Breed, who was nominated for an Olivier Award for starring in the West End cast of Six. I was excited to see her in Six when it first came to Manchester but sadly she was off. I then hoped to see her in Rent (alongside Bayer at this very theatre) but I was not reviewing it and the entire run quickly sold out. So this was third time lucky!

Whilst I hope to see her in something a little meatier next time, she was charming all throughout the show, never disappointing with her enviable vocals, especially that suspended chord in ‘Good Girl’.

A star performance came from Jenny O’Leary as the loud but loveable Pamela, whose frustrations and jealousy are a product of her sexual struggles. O’Leary starred in the original UK cast of Heathers, and I saw her in We Will Rock You last year. She certainly shines as crazy rock chicks who chew up the scenery.

I love that the play cast a plus-size actress as the kingdom’s most sought-after maiden. As for the “plain” Philoclea: perhaps Pamela suggesting the undeniably beautiful Quansah-Breed is unattractive is part of the joke, but if the creatives wanted to be truly progressive, might they have cast somebody who does not meet conventional, Western beauty standards in the role?

The set, though simple, could be quite striking. I loved the neon “Arcadia” sign at the back of the stage. The costumes were all fabulous. They were very ASOS (I should know). I loved the pairing of casual clothing with camp festival fashion, or classy, modern outfits with regal, theatrical costumes. The mishmash, mismatched costuming worked perfectly for this deliberately confused production: a queer, rock, musical retelling of Arcadia!

Jenny O’Leary and the company. Photo: Pamela Raith

Head Over Heels is no musical masterpiece but I don’t think it wants to be. It’s more concerned with being a fun, flashy spectacle, with its substance lying in its progressive politics, rather than its paper-thin book.

Whilst the politics can be a bit on-the-nose, they’re never quite preachy, and the discussions about gender identity could not be more timely, topical and important. This never brings the musical down, however. It’s a feel-good riot from start to finish (with one emotional scene that feels a little out of place).

You might not fall head over heels in love with this musical but you’ll sure have a fun night out – and with February being LGBT+ History Month, it’s the perfect time to see it.

 

Head Over Heels runs at Hope Mill Theatre until March 4.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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