Head Over Heels review – Elizabethan romance meets Go-Go’s jukebox musical

Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 work Arcadia, having been picked up and picked over by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, is still furnishing the stuff of drama in the 21st century. Back in 2015, Tony-winning playwright Jeff Whitty turned this four-centuries-old pastoral romance into a jukebox musical featuring the hits of the all-female US group the Go-Go’s (the title is taken from one of the band’s 1984 singles), a coupling almost as improbable as the convoluted plot. After a successful premiere at the 2015 Oregon Shakespeare festival, and some shortening and sharpening from adapter James Magruder, Head Over Heels opened on Broadway in July 2018, where it ran for five months. Now, it makes its UK debut, directed and choreographed by Tom Jackson Greaves (responsible for the terrific Whistle Down the Wind at Newbury’s the Watermill last year).

The action offers many standard Renaissance romance features, including gender confusions, parental oppression, death and resurrection, but the plot lacks drive. A conservative, patriarchal Duke (Fed Zanni) visits the Delphic oracle and then tries to evade its prophecies, which, if they are fulfilled, will result in his kingdom losing its traditional “beat” (here, the music of the Go-Go’s, delivered by a stupendous live band under Arlene McNaught’s musical direction). Although a variety of intersecting love interests lead to satisfying resolutions, in terms of partnerings, realisations of sexualities and acceptance of gender fluidity, we are never in any real doubt that all will end well. Characters, while delivered with tremendous oomph by the all-singing, all-dancing cast of eight plus four-strong chorus, never face any real jeopardy – physical, psychological or emotional.

Ultimately, one of the musical’s core strengths is also its fatal weakness. The beat of the Go-Go’s provides a high-energy kick that, lacking diversity, over two-plus hours comes to feel relentless and samey rather than sustaining or revelatory.