Book, Music and Lyrics: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe
Director: Andy Fickman
Heathers the Musical is an interesting beast, and certainly not your traditional piece of musical theatre. Adapted from the 1988 cult film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, it premiered off-Broadway in 2014, arriving in the UK four years later, amassing a cult following all its own, and one which travelled to Milton Keynes for tonight’s packed-out performance. The show walks the fine line of tackling incredibly heavy issues including homophobia, suicide, murder, bullying, arson and more – and somehow manages to pack it all into two very entertaining hours.
It’s September 1st, 1989 and a new school year is beginning at Westerburg High School. 17-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Rebecca Wickes), along with her mercilessly-teased best friend Martha Dunstock (Mhairi Angus), is firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. That is, until her talent for forgery draws the attention of ‘The Heathers’ – the school’s most popular, beautiful, and callously cruel trio of girls, led by Queen Bee Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth), and flanked by Heather Duke (Merryl Ansah) and Heather McNamara (Lizzy Parker). Suddenly, Veronica finds herself propelled to the top of the high school food chain as the fourth member of the group, distancing herself from her old life as she tries to cling on to her new-found social status. A fall from grace sees her drawn to Westerburg’s newest arrival, the mysterious and achingly cool JD (Simon Gordon), and murderous chaos ensues.
Rebecca Wickes is an outstanding Veronica; quirky and endearing, the audience warms to her immediately, and her powerhouse vocals are effortless. She has lovely chemistry with Simon Gordon’s JD, although his performance feels somewhat lacking, particularly during the show’s more tortured moments, such as the songs I Say No and Meant To Be Yours; you need to really feel the unhinged menace and danger that JD presents to Veronica and her classmates, and it feels like it is missing a little here. However, Gordon’s performance of Freeze Your Brain, an ode to the humble Slushie, shot through with darker undertones about JD’s fractured life, is gorgeous and showcases his voice beautifully.
Firth, Ansah, and Parker as the Heathers form a striking trio, and their first entrance onstage feels akin to that of a rock concert, such was the reaction from tonight’s audience. Ben Cracknall’s lighting design during the signature anthem Candy Store is electrifying; the use of red, green and yellow spotlights packs a real punch. Making her UK debut as ‘mythic bitch’ Heather Chandler, Maddison Firth is a force to be reckoned with, full of teenage spite and cruelty, “floating above it all”, and coming back as a ghost throughout the show’s second half to mirror Veronica’s guilt. Lizzy Parker’s performance as Heather McNamara shows us a Heather who deep down has a heart of gold, and her rendition of Lifeboat is beautifully observed: a cry for help, demonstrating the pressures of high school and of being ‘a Heather’; how you can’t let your mask slip, not for one second, lest you be cast out, and Parker captures this overwhelm and wide-eyed anxiety perfectly. Merryl Ansah does a good job as Heather Duke and has an excellent singing voice, though she is the least fleshed out and most two-dimensional of the three Heathers.
Mhairi Angus’ performance of Kindergarten Boyfriend is absolutely breathtaking (that voice!), and Rory Phelan and Liam Doyle as jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelley provide much of the show’s comic relief and are great fun to watch, whilst the rest of the cast work brilliantly to convey the different high school stereotypes – preppy stud, hipster dork, nerd, stoner chick etc. – in the show’s ensemble numbers.
Writers O’Keefe and Murphy fill the show with punchy one-liners which lead to many laugh-out-loud moments, and David Shields’ moveable pieces of set, though basic, work well to convey a sense of place – be it the high school, JD’s house, or the local 7-Eleven. It is a shame that the Heathers band, though brilliant, is so loud at points that dialogue is lost and the cast’s incredible voices struggle to be heard above the music; pulling this back a little would allow the show’s pivotal moments to shine even more.
A dark, brooding study of the psyche of American teenagers in high school, Heathers the Musical is not. What it is, though, is a very fun night out at the theatre, led by a fantastic cast with some absolutely cracking songs. How very!
Runs until 20 November 2021 and touring