Like the 1989 film on which it is based, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s musical aims for cult status. Given a brief West End run that is well worth catching, the show can make a claim for that status: the production, directed by Andy Fickman, keeps popping up and fans are as enthusiastic as the energetic performances on offer.
Heathers has its quirks – not all of them work – but there’s a striving for originality that is admirable. The show enjoys a twisted sensibility that, in truth, has limited shock value. And you can question how the topics of teenage suicide and mass killing are handled. What, no trigger warning? Nonetheless, the show is well above average.
Twists on high-school dramas are as predictable as high-school dramas themselves. But the titular characters here, popular girls who share the same first name, are impressively repulsive. Led by Jodie Steele, who makes her role fool-proof with its brashness, the trio are fun. Our actual heroes are the real psychopaths, with roles that aren’t much more convincing, even if Christina Bennington and Jordan Luke Gage give their very best.
The music is good. This is a fine collection of rock/pop songs on the right side of late 1980s pastiche. If there aren’t enough stand-out numbers, collectively the score and lyrics are impressive. And all the numbers demand powerful vocals provided by everyone on stage. It’s rousing stuff, often funny and occasionally original. The choreography, from Gary Lloyd (also associate director), with mirroring moves to show the Heathers’ influence on others, is also strong. The production is almost entertaining enough to ignore what is actually going on.
In common with lots of teen dramas, the adults in the piece are awful (even with the excellent Lauren Ward putting in a star turn as a hippy teacher). It might be better to excise them altogether. And while strong female characters are welcome, might balance help? I think every named male character is either a potential rapist, a closeted homosexual or a serial killer!
Following the movie closely makes the plot cumbersome on stage. Murphy and O’Keefe’s tweaks are good – especially having victims appear as ghosts, not least because we get to see more of Steele – but they only add to a plot that starts to become unwieldy. And we do have to address the very serious subject matter. Not because musicals can’t tackle such subjects, or that humour shouldn’t be used to examine them, but because Heathers doesn’t deal with violence well. In a long show, questions of motive and morality are shoehorned in or glossed over. A too speedy resolution and homespun wisdom tacked on don’t do the subject – or the show – justice.
Until 11 September 2021
Photos by Pamela Raith