Book, music and lyrics: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe
Director: Andy Fickman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
When Veronica, the 17-year-old heroine of Heathers The Musical, gets trapped in a cow field, confronted by two threatening thugs, we feel inclined to ask why she does not pick up her mobile ‘phone. But this is 1989 and we quickly realise that curses can also be blessings. At least Veronica’s school life of intolerable peer pressure and savage bullying is not being made infinitely worse by social media.
Technology aside, nothing much in school life seems to have changed in the near 30 years since the release of Heathers, the cult hit film on which this musical is based. At Westerburg High School (“home of the Rottweilers”) in deepest Ohio, good-hearted Veronica is taunted, by the three “popular” girls, all named Heather. She decides at first to ingratiate herself with their clique, but, when a new kid, brooding, damaged Jason “JD” Dean, arrives, he becomes her boyfriend and they combine to adopt a different approach. They poison the principal Heather, making it look like suicide, and embark on a killing spree to take out the other school bullies.
The show, first seen in New York, is an audacious cross between Grease and Arsenic and Old Lace, making the audience root for the killers against the bad guys, their tormentors. As in all the best black comedies, there are long spells which leave little room for raising moral questions. The fact that Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe are credited jointly with the book, music and lyrics signals a unity of purpose in the show’s creation which is confirmed when the elements are seen to knit closely together, the song lyrics propelling the story and the music underpinning it all. Andy Fickman’s inventive, fast-paced direction and Gary Lloyd’s fun-filled choreography complement their work perfectly.
Most of the actors playing the school kids may have only distant memories of being 17, but we must pass over that, because this superb company is bursting with raw energy. Carrie Hope Fletcher is dynamite as Veronica and Jamie Muscato, both romantic and sinister as JD, matches her all the way as he transforms from sociopath into psychopath. The three Heathers (Jodie Steele, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs) are as malevolent as anything in Macbeth, with their All-American male equivalents (Christopher Chung and Dominic Andersen) imposing a reign of terror and looking splendid in their matching underpants.
David Shields’ split-level set design is simple enough, but his costumes brighten up the show, made even more garish by Ben Cracknell’s lighting. Everything needs to be in the worst possible taste, including the big song and dance sequences, which are built around, for example, the reading of a suicide note and an attempted gang rape. As the show becomes more and more outrageous, it becomes more and more inspired and the interval arrives with the audience yelling for more.
The second half begins in a similarly irreverent vein with a bereaved dad (Jon Boydon) defying homophobic jibes and belting out I Love My Dead Gay Son! in the style of a Baptist preacher, supported by a rousing gospel choir. However, soon after this, the show starts to back-pedal and the bubble around the story’s warped vision bursts, punctured by conventional morality. Now JD becomes recognisable as the type of gun-wielding menace that has, in reality, plagued American communities for decades. Once such thoughts have been allowed to enter our heads, what had been a delicious black comedy edges towards insensitivity and the still lively musical numbers feel like sugar coating for a cyanide pill.
Loss of nerve in the final quarter is, of course, a flaw inherited from the show’s source material, but this does not need to detract too much from the deadly delight of what has gone before. With several shows scheduled for closure, the West End currently needs a new smash hit musical and this could well be it.
Booking until 24 November 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith