Heathers the Musical
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Reviewed – 10th September 2018
“if we are condemned to forever relive our past, it may as well be done like this, with a great big song and dance”
As if fearful of the present, a strain of nostalgia seems to have taken hold of pop culture. Cinemas teem with sequels, reboots, and franchise entries; discount CDs beg to be taken back to some half-remembered decade. In this context it feels grimly predictable that Heathers – correctly in this case called a cult classic – should be dredged up once again in musical form. And yet somehow, perhaps due to the utter peculiarity of the original, one wonders whether it might just work.
1989: smart and sweet-natured Veronica Sawyer subsists in the purgatory of high school. Then, in a freakishly convenient turn of events, she finds herself under the wing of the decidedly bad-natured Heathers. The Heathers – surnames Chandler, McNamara, and Duke – are simultaneously the most popular and most loathed girls at Westerburg High; led by “mythic bitch” Heather C., they seem to float above school life, making and breaking reputations at a glance. But there is also Jason Dean, known only by his initials, an outsider operating beyond understood hierarchies. The Heathers may be at the top of the social food chain, but they are a part of it nonetheless. J.D. is purely anarchist, his sardonic smile a promise of disturbance. Veronica is slowly drawn in, and so begins the dark unravelling of the Heathers’ reign of terror.
Within the first few moments, the nerves of those who feared a demolition job are calmed; led by Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Veronica, the cast immediately sets out a strong stall. The ice-cold cruelty of the Heathers (Jodie Steele, Sophie Isaacs, T’Shan Williams) and the cool, calm, and collected J.D. (Jamie Muscato) naturally please the punters, but particularly revelatory are Christopher Chung and Dominic Andersen as bullies Kurt and Ram. Their unforeseen injection of comic relief almost steals the show completely.
The set design is as impressive as it is versatile. Grand and glorious one minute (enhanced by the grand and glorious theatre itself), football fields transform seamlessly into classrooms, bedrooms, and basements.
In spite of a few altered plot points, there’s probably very little that will upset die-hard fans. On the other hand, the music is surprising for its quality. Not that a failure was necessarily expected, but the weight of anticipation may have crushed lesser songs.
If it seems reductive that I compare the show so closely to the film, I would say only that, as a certified nostalgia piece, the play sets itself the challenge of living up to its forebear. And on the whole, I would say that it does so, but not without reservation. There is, of course, the issue of J.D.’s introduction. In the original he is set upon by Kurt and Ram, only to pull a (blank-loaded) gun on them in the middle of lunch. In this version, J.D. instead beats the living daylights out of the pair as Veronica looks on in awe. Given the stark terror of school shootings in modern-day America, it’s easy to see why the change was made, and it needn’t necessarily make much difference, except that it creates plot holes in an otherwise tight script. For example, later on J.D. loses his apparent ability to take on the jocks and receives a savage beating. What’s more, when not on school property (or when in the school basement), no such qualms about his (sometimes lethal) weapon-wielding crop up. It’s a minor point, but it is demonstrative of the wider problem of reboots trying to navigate new eras.
Some of the caustic cool that made the film so much fun has sadly been stripped out. Muscato deftly handles the transition from rebel to terrorist, but his J.D. lapses too often into a plastic Patrick Bateman impression. Ultimately these factors don’t detract much, but may leave you with nagging doubts later that night.
It would be hard to describe the show as cutting edge. If pop culture really is trapped in an endless cycle of regurgitated images, Heathers: The Musical won’t be the antidote. But if we are condemned to forever relive our past, it may as well be done like this, with a great big song and dance.
Reviewed by Harry True
Photography by Pamela Raith
Heathers the Musical
Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24th November