Heathers, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, review: Packed with talent, but is this jollied-up version sufficiently unsettling?

Some of the satire and bite of the cult high school movie has been replaced by snark and camp in this otherwise vivacious musical 

Paul Taylor
Friday 14 September 2018 00:01
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Colour of money (L to R): Jodie Steele, Carrie Hope Fletcher, T'Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs
Colour of money (L to R): Jodie Steele, Carrie Hope Fletcher, T'Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs

Laurence O’Keefe who co-wrote the book, music, and lyrics for this show with Kevin Murphy, has already scored a notable success in the high school musical department. He adapted the surprisingly delightful stage transfer of Legally Blonde, a film that was, admittedly, a much safer proposition than this. Part of the pleasure of Heathers, the cult 1989 movie, is how wickedly it traces a fine line between satire and gleeful bad taste as it tackles peer pressure, bullying, body image, social attitudes to teen suicide and mass school shootings. It makes you feel queasy about the extent to which you’re enjoying the dark deliciousness of its revenge fantasy.

This musical version has its edgy moments, as well it might, given that many of these problems have only got worse in the last thirty years. But the tone of the vivacious pop-rock score, with its droll, snarky lyrics, is predominantly exuberant camp. And there’s a note of reassurance from the outset. A skilful opening song “Beautiful” establishes the motivations as to why the clever, conscientious Veronica (a wonderfully gutsy Carrie Hope Fletcher) joins the eponymous trio of mean girls, their reasons for taking her on, and her robust superiority to these “lip-gloss Nazis”.

While the students of Westerberg High stomp round hissing lines like “Freak! Slut! Cripple, Homo! Homo! Homo!”, independent-minded Veronica is pining for a time when they may change back to the old values of respect and connection. She doesn’t think of herself as a friend of the Heathers, more a co-worker in the maintenance of dominant popularity.

This sadistic clique in their ra-ra skirts and knee socks transfer brilliantly to theatre and, in songs such as the blithely intimidating “Candy Store”, whoops of rapture greet every jut of the hip and cocky pose with a croquet mallet from the excellent threesome of Jodie Steele, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs. (The night I saw the show, the audience looked to be mostly in their mid-20s) No wonder Veronica seeks solace with the romantic, mysterious, Baudelaire-reading bad boy JD. To some extent, he’s a soul mate in rebellion. She hadn’t anticipated, though, that he would be such an extremist.

By the time she has properly woken up to this, he’s egged her on to three killings passed off as teenage suicides. The musical places more emphasis than the film on JD.’s difficult background – the father a boorish expert in demolition, his mother taking her life in front of him when he was nine. Jamie Muscato, in beautiful tenor voice, delivers a performance that combines seductive, witty charm and a haunted, high-risk insecurity.

The character delivers a cynical, sensitive hymn to the numbing properties of a slushie in “Freeze Your Brain”. Muscato and Hope Fletcher have a strong chemistry and make the lovely song “Seventeen” (as they look forward an unlikely life of normality together: “Can we be seventeen?/Is that so hard to do?”) sound at once ecstatically and deeply troubled.

In this adaptation, the victims of Veronica and JD, remain as blackly comic presences after they have been despatched. Jodie Steele’s Heather Chandler is as monstrous dead as alive. Parading around in nothing but matching Y-fronts are the two homophobic football jocks – Kurt (Christopher Chung) and Ram (Dominic Andersen) – whose death was made to look like a gay suicide pact.

This posthumous persistence underlines how adults misinterpret the seeming suicides for their own purposes. In an obvious but amusing sequence in the school chapel, the fathers of the jocks don’t just embrace their boys’ supposed sexuality, but, remembering the summer of ‘83 (“that was one hell of fishing trip”) come out themselves with some roof-raising clinches.

Those who are keen to hear classic lines from Daniel Waters’s movie script – “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ‘87”, say, or the one about doing something “gently with a chainsaw” – will not be disappointed. The show is packed with talent performed with huge zest. But as it weighs up the relative merits of popularity and inclusivity, you may wonder is this jollied-up version of Heathers is sufficiently unsettling.

‘Heathers’ is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 November

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