Lyrics and Music: Joe Iconis
Book: Joes Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Director: Stephen Brackett
If Greg Heffley (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) were to be in high school, you’d imagine he’d be the spit for Jeremy (played by Scott Folan), the focal point of Be More Chill, the latest teen-angst musical to hit the West End.
Jeremy is a near-invisible, insecure, and intolerably shy high-schooler who is trying to navigate his way through puberty and school without getting beaten up. He escapes his daily torments with online porn or playing computer games with his, equally nerdy, best friend Michael (Blake Patrick Anderson).
Jeremy’s confronted by his own failings head-on when the girl he falls for is swept away right under his nose by the school jock. Dejected and frustrated, he is offered a simple and easy resolution to turn him from nobody to someone… someone cool, desirable and, most importantly, popular. The solution is The Squip, an impossible sounding pill that implants a mind controlling avatar into his brain and helps him go from zero to hero.
From the moment Jeremy meets his unrequited love, Christine (Miracle Chance), you know how this story is going to end. The underdog-done-good is a common enough trope in coming-of-age stories. However, here, the use of pharmaceuticals to facilitate personality change adds an interesting, and timely, dimension. The use of medication to rapidly address our anxieties, mood swings, and emotional imbalances, is commonplace in the US and gaining increasing traction here too.
Be More Chill is based on Ned Vizzini’s hugely popular 2004 Young Adult novel, but the translation from page to stage appears to have oversimplified the narrative to the point of becoming nonsensical. There are a number of major themes that are touched upon, but never addressed deeply enough to give any fulfilment. In addressing the various forms of anxiety that impede each character in the show, it opens a plethora of narratives that it struggles to satisfactorily resolve by the ending. As a result, the conclusion seems rushed and mawkish.
Musically, the show is anchored in pop-rock, with a tinge of 80’s synth-pop thrown in for good measure. With the possible exception of Michael In The Bathroom (a song that has been performed countless times by fans on social media), there are no real stand out tracks. Whilst the songs keep things moving apace, you’ll struggle to hum a single tune on your way out. That said, they do engage you while they’re being performed; much like the pharmaceutical solutions available on stage, the songs do what they need to do while they’re being performed, and then it’s onto the next one.
The show has been reworked a number of times since its 2015 debut. The version here is the ‘new production’ that was originally shown in London in early 2020. The show still feels a bit flabby in the middle and the story’s resolution is near-laughable, but for all the wrong reasons.
What saves the show from veering into something verging on amateurish, is the stellar cast. Scott Folan, in the lead, is particularly impressive as the weedy, nerdy, geek, but it’s the full ensemble around him that gives the show its heart and energy. There’s many a line or movement that could easily make you cringe with embarrassment, but it never does. The cast are really enjoying what they’re doing, and the certainly rubs off on the audience. Whilst Be More Chill is probably not going to set the West End alight, it’s certainly a welcome addition to musical genre.
Runs until 5 September 2021