Tuesday 30 January 2024

Theatre review: Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical

My third show in a row to make liberal use of bisexual lighting, Roger Kumble, Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross' Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical is based on Kumble's 1999 film, which is based on Stephen Frears' 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on Christopher Hampton's 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel. But yeah, as the subtitle says, we're very much sticking with the 90s teens here, and the version that famously starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phillippe's arse. Set in a New York private high school for the rich, bored and terminally horny, Sebastian Valmont (Daniel Bravo, whose parents Johnny and Juliet must be very proud,) is the resident fuckboi whose bad reputation precedes him. His step-sister Kathryn Merteuil (Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky) is the class president and golden girl.

In fact she's at least as bad as Sebastian, but much better at hiding it. She pulls the strings behind the scenes, learning and exposing everyone's secrets, and slut-shaming her classmates for occasionally doing the sort of things she does twice before breakfast.

She exploits the sexual tension with her step-sibling to make a bet: If he fails to seduce the virginal daughter of the new headmaster, he has to give her his car, and if he succeeds she has to give him something instead. Anal, it's anal, there is nothing ambiguous about this. Spoiler alert, Sebastian is instead changed forever when he actually falls in wuv with Annette Curtain Hargrove (Abbie Budden) for reasons that are a lot less obvious than the anal stuff - Kumble didn't give Annette anything resembling a personality in the original screenplay, and he's not going to change that winning formula now.

If the original film was sold as a guilty pleasure, this is the same but with added nostalgia thrown in; recreating the film would be enough to do that in fairness (I wouldn’t say I could remember every detail of the film off the top of my head, but Polly Sullivan’s costumes in particular seem to have gone all out in trying to recreate the characters’ looks) before you get to the ‘90s pop hits. These range from the occasional number that’s quite cannily and thematically worked into the action, to those that are hurled at the stage with reckless abandon. The creatives asked themselves some serious questions during the construction of this show, and 99% of those questions were “can we afford the rights to this one?”

The best moments come when the song placement hits the absolute sweet spot for jukebox musicals, of crowbarring a tune in with tongue firmly in cheek, the highlight being when McCaulsky and Rose Galbraith as Cecile are about to recreate one of the film’s most famous scenes, SMG teaching Selma Blair how to kiss, to the strains of Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me.” The fact that the majority of the audience know both what scene’s coming up, and what song the opening notes announce, is a big part of the comic success.

The show comes with a number of trigger warnings that come about from the difference in attitudes between 1999 and 2024 – a bit of racism, although this is mostly contextualized as highlighting the characters’ attitudes, and a fair few more homophobic insults than I remembered. It also feels notable now that Kathryn attacking Cecile’s relationship with Ronald (Nickcolia King-N’Da) instead of the man who actually wronged her isn’t really interrogated for its misogyny. To what extent this is all just reflecting the time, and to what extent it’s Kumble making as few changes to the original script as humanly possible is up for debate; it’s one of the reasons I’m not sure how much the show’s adapters themselves are dialing up the self-parody, and how much of it is Jonathan O’Boyle’s production leaning into the camp. Either way, after a slightly shaky first half-hour the show embraces the idea of its own inherent ridiculousness and is all the better for it – both the cast and the audience seemed to relax more at this point.

The two leads make for a gleefully sinister pair, and McCaulsky delivers the bigger numbers with a powerful voice, but the cast is generally strong. I’d forgotten that Joshua Jackson was in the film, but remembered as soon as the appropriately-named Josh Barnett turned up with the same terrible blond dye job (it’s ‘90s for Gay.) He’s a lot of fun as the louche accomplice Blaine, who traps closeted jock Greg (Barney Wilkinson) so Sebastian can blackmail him, through the time-honoured medium of them both suddenly breaking into the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” (apparently a very late addition to this UK version of the show.) The whole ensemble also throw themselves into Gary Lloyd’s choreography, whose ‘90s boyband stylings feel as authentic as the rest of the nostalgia touches.

Squeezing songs into a fairly short running time only emphasizes the way the story is overloaded with plots, and Kathryn and Sebastian’s victims never get anything like the characterisation the villains do. I’m not convinced the show as written quite captures the archness that would make none of the flaws matter, but fortunately O’Boyle’s production tips the scales in the right direction.

Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical by Roger Kumble, Lindsey Rosin, Jordan Ross, Charles Drummond, Steve Hewitt, Brian Molko, Stefan Olsdal, Melissa Etheridge, David Frank, Steve Kipner, Pamela Sheyne, Gwen Stefani, Tom Dumont, Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin, Matt Slocum, Peter Svensson, Nina Persson, John Wozniak, Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze, Todd Pipes, Kevin Briggs, Kandi Burruss, Tameka Cottle, Lisa Lopes, Sir Bufton Tufton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Zippy, Bungle, Jeffrey Archer, Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, Butch Vig, Jonas Berggren, Paula Cole, Babyface, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Beckham, Matt Rowe, Richard Stannard, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, Phil Thornalley, Jörgen Elofsson, Your Mum, David Bryson, Adam Duritz, Charlie Gillingham, David Immerglück, Matt Malley, Ben Mize, Dan Vickrey, Eric Stefani, Tony Kanal, John Rzeznik, Jewel Kilcher, Meredith Brooks, Shelly Peiken, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Richard Ashcroft is booking until the 14th of April at The Other Palace.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

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