Book, Music and Lyrics: Kevin Murphy & Laurence O’Keefe
Director: Andy Fickman
Opening at the resplendent Grand Theatre in Leeds before embarking on a national tour, it feels like large scale commercial musical theatre is back in business after a hiatus of nearly eighteen months. Based on the 1989 teen movie starring a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers was developed and adapted into a smash hit musical in America before hitting London’s West End in 2018.
Seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Rebecca Wickes) attends the preppy Westerberg High School with all its 1980s clichés. The dumb ‘jock’ boys have only one thing on their mind, overweight and unconfident Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus) is cruelly labelled Martha ‘Dumptruck’ and the school is ruled by the trio of girls named Heather. Dressed in colour coded tartan skirts and knee-length socks, with croquet mallets in hand, this matriarchy is bossed by Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth). When Veronica falls into their favour through her talent for forging handwriting, she temporarily enjoys her time as the fourth ‘Heather’ before seeing through their cruelty and shallowness. Enter love interest Jason ‘J.D’ Dean (Simon Gordon), the troubled and mysterious teen rebel who has been through ten schools, and Veronica embarks on a dark and dangerous path in his company.
Over the years the movie has gained cult status due to the blackness of its comedy. The plot unfurls into murder, teenage suicide and even touches on high school massacre a decade before the Columbine massacre. Led by J.D., the pair ‘accidentally’ murder Heather Chandler before forging her suicide note and when Kurt and Ram (from the football team) are killed in an apparent ‘suicide pact’ the plot takes a strange turn from a Bonnie and Clyde type doomed romance towards an examination into the glamorisation of teenage suicide.
It is precisely this shift that makes Heathers such a difficult musical project to get right in terms of style. On the one hand writers Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe feel like they want to push the boundaries of taste as Trey Parker and Matt Stone demolished in The Book of Mormon, and on the other hand the show is a big, colourful and commercial musical theatre spectacle. It is a juxtaposition that sits uncomfortably with the subject matter – a hybrid that invites the audience to a feelgood dance on their feet at the end of the show that doesn’t sit well with the mix of styles the rest of the show navigates through.
That said, Murphy and O’Keefe’s lyrics are intelligent and witty with a definite 1980s synthetic feel. The young cast exude exceptional talent. Rebecca Wilkes is flawless as Veronica and becomes a favourite of many of the fans who have arrived at the theatre dressed in similar fashion. Special mention must be given Mahiro Angus who plays Martha – an exceptional singing voice in her moving and quirky solo as she contemplates suicide.
Heathers is a musical with belting pop range. It is colourful, bright and has its tongue firmly in cheek. For fans of the movie it is a departure from the black undercurrent that runs throughout the film but provides a great night out at the theatre after such a long time being off limits.
Runs until 14th August 2021 and then tours