Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Theatre review: Heathers

London might have to wait a bit longer for the musical adaptation of Mean Girls, but another classic American high school movie about, well, mean girls, gets the musical treatment in the meantime. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s Heathers, based on the film by Daniel Waters, premiered off-Broadway and has been further workshopped since, now arriving on The Other Palace’s main stage in a production directed by Andy Flickman. Heather Chandler (Jodie Steele,) Heather McNamara (Sophie Isaacs) and Heather Duke (T’Shan Williams) are top of the social ladder of an Ohio High School, and led by the fearsome Heather Chandler they pass judgement on who should be accepted or demonised. When they discover Veronica (Carrie Hope Fletcher) has a talent for forgery they allow her to join their gang, but when she refuses to go along with bullying her oldest friend Martha (Jenny O’Leary) she’s kicked back to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Veronica wants to apologise to the Alpha Heather and get an easy ride for the rest of high school, but her loner boyfriend JD (Jamie Muscato) convinces her to go for a more extreme solution.

Heather Chandler becomes the first victim in the couple’s short spree of murders disguised as suicides, as they clear the school of what they see as the toxic element; with the popular kids now seemingly killing themselves, it becomes the latest trend that everyone else starts trying to copy. I think I’d forgotten just how pitch-black a comedy the original Heathers is, and even though David Shields’ designs and Ben Cracknell’s lighting keep everything colourful and bright, O’Keefe and Murphy’s fairly faithful adherence to the story means it stays that way, with perhaps a bit more of a surreal element as Fletcher’s bright-as-a-button Veronica tries to plough cheerfully through her increasingly gory life. Skulking around the sidelines in a trench coat like a sexy Nosferatu, Muscato’s JD is more awkward misfit than cool rebel, and is characteristically charming even as it becomes apparent how dangerously disturbed his character is.

How twisted the story gets can be seen in the plot development where Veronica is lured out into a field to be raped by dumb jocks Ram (Dominic Andersen) and Kurt (Chris Chung.) She escapes, and JD’s revenge is to stage a gay suicide pact, leading to the Act II opener in which Ram’s dad (Edward Baruwa) mourns “My Dead Gay Son.” Following Monday’s review of Genesis Inc. and my complaint about LOLgay in that, I did wonder why I didn’t mind an even more outrageous case of it here: I think it’s that Heathers is at times so wildly inappropriate that it operates on the same level as The Book of Mormon, knowing it’s wrong (in a way that even the original film probably didn’t in this particular instance) but pushing the envelope for uncomfortable laughs anyway; whereas Arthur Darvill’s character in Genesis Inc. was presented as if it was genuine representation.

I enjoyed the songs, many of which are catchy, although the musical’s New York origins are apparent in how relentlessly they require the cast to belt out huge notes and show off their vocal range; it’s a style I’m not a huge fan of, but with pretty much every named character getting a moment to show off their pipes at least an impressively well-matched cast are all up to it. In a story with such famous lines as “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” the lyrics have a witty touch that I liked, especially in the first act, although Ian found the aforementioned belting style of singing meant he often couldn’t catch the words. There’s some nice little nods to details from the film – an element that hasn’t transferred to the stage is the constant references to Big Fun*, a band who’ve cashed in on the spate of apparent suicides with a chart-topping single, but the band’s name does become a song title instead.

As well as how dark it is, I think I must have forgotten how much I liked the film, and how much I was hoping this would succeed. The second act isn’t as strong as the first but for the most part I think this does the original justice, staying faithful to the story but tinkering with the tone to make it fit better in its new medium – less of a teenage goth favourite, more of a bubblegum confection with razor blades hidden in it. I don’t know if I’d say it was so very, but it’s definitely pretty very.

Heathers by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film by Daniel Waters, is booking until the 4th of August at The Other Palace, and from the 3rd of September to the 24th of November at Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

*not this Big Fun, I think it’s fairly safe to assume

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