“a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece”
I approach “Heathers the Musical” somewhat as an outsider. In a seemingly packed, though socially distanced auditorium, I am detached from the majority of the audience. Although I am hoping to be drawn in, and accepted. Based on the eighties’ movie, which originally flopped only to become a cult; the musical rapidly became a cult in its own right while skipping the pre-requisite critical rejection that qualifies its status. What marks this production out from the start is the enthusiasm with which it is presented and received. Everything about it is heightened and it often feels like you are in a cartoon.
Set very specifically in 1989, it adopts the high school setting so popular at the time, but twists the genre into something much darker. It reaches further than the typical subject matter of peer pressure and rebellion and attempts to grapple with teenage suicide and the fatal attraction of belonging to a clique. The clique in question is a trio of girls, all called Heather, who hold sway with a swagger that pushes credibility to the limit. For reasons governed by plot clichés, the protagonist – Veronica – is desperate to run with this pack. To say that she eventually outruns them is no spoiler; we can all see it coming as visibly as the love interest side-line.
What rescues the storyline are the quirks, the shocks and body-count that we don’t anticipate. And the oddball minor characters that outshine the leads in most cases. Andy Fickman’s production is a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece. The more successful moments are when the volume gets turned down and the irony and sporadic subversiveness is allowed to be heard.
Christina Bennington is in fine voice as Veronica, torn between following her fantasy (in the shape of the three Heathers) or her conscience, represented by the Baudelaire reading, enigmatic Jason ‘JD’ Dean; gleefully played with a tongue-in-cheek assuredness by Jordan Luke Gage. His rapid metamorphosis from sympathetic to psychopathic is fun to watch. Less so are the eponymous Heathers; Jodie Steele, Bobbie Little and Frances Mayli McCann who screech far too much for their own good. At least Steele has the advantage of her ‘Heather’ being killed off fairly early on, allowing her to come back and haunt the perpetrators – a sardonic ghost that sheds more light and shade on proceedings than those still alive and clinging onto a script that is pulling them under.
It is buoyed up by the music that, despite its subject matter, powers the piece with energy and optimism. Bizarrely this sense of optimism and misplaced nostalgia is what characterises “Heathers” which, in effect, is a musical about high school killers. It makes light of the issues but doesn’t succeed in highlighting them by the humour. But what do I know? As I said at the start – I am the outsider; detached from the rest of the audience. There’s no denying this is a solid production, with a dream cast of West End talent. And there’s no denying its guaranteed success. It has bludgeoned its way into its cult status – but at the cost of sensitivity.
“an energetic and spectacular tribute to one of the most influential artists who has ever lived”
Thriller Live first opened at the Lyric Theatre in London in 2009 and since then has had over 4,000 performances and is soon to be the 11th longest running musical in the West End. Celebrating the life and legacy of Michael Jackson, Thriller Live, produced by Paul Walden and Derek Nicol, takes its audience on a journey through the King of Pop’s greatest hits from his early life in the Jackson 5 to his dizzying success with the albums Bad and Thriller.
The show has little plot other than a vague chronology of Jackson’s life and musical career. The incredibly cute Ishaan Raithatha plays a young Michael Jackson and leads on ABC and I Want You Back while Florivaldo Mossi does an excellent job of playing the King of Pop at the height of his career. With Mossi’s effortless flair, it’s easy to forget that you are not actually watching MJ himself. In Billie Jean, Mossi takes to the stage alone and dominates the space with his incredible imitation of Jackson’s dancing. The choreography (Gary Lloyd) is incredible throughout the show and particularly notable during Dangerous, Dirty Diana and Smooth Criminal.
For a special two-week run this Christmas, singer Peter Andre also joins the cast. There is great excitement for Andre amongst the crowd and any appearance of his on-stage garners whoops and cheers. Andre did well to keep up with the King of Pop’s signature moves, but his voice is unfortunately not nearly as strong as the other singers. The strongest vocalist is Vivienne Ekwulugo who leads a beautiful rendition of Who’s Loving You.
Haydon Eshun and John Moabi do well to host the show though there is no one person who is particularly good at getting the audience going. Any enthusiasm from the crowd is the result of favourite songs rather than engaging audience participation. During Shake Your Body, the cast attempt to start a sing along but it is far too early in the show for the audience to really be warmed up enough. By the finale, however, the audience are far more receptive.
The set (Johnathan Park) consists of several screens one of which opens at the back of the stage to create an entrance and from behind which the band plays. Two tall light-up staircases sit either side and lead up to a walkway where the cast dance and in Smooth Criminal show off Jackson’s famous anti-gravity lean. There is another large screen that hangs above the stage and displays different images depending on the song. Bursts of light and flashing effects (Nigel Catmur) are also frequently used to enhance crescendo moments.
There are few props, but these are barely necessary as the dancing and lights are engaging enough. During Smooth Criminal and Dirty Diana in the second half, two sofas are wheeled around to add variety to the dancing. There is also some flag waving at the end of Can You Feel It and fake drums to match the banging in They Don’t Care About Us. The costumes (Rob Jones and Catherine Teatum) are suitably Jackson-esque with lots of sparkles and iconic outfits such as the Smooth Criminal white suit and the red Thriller jacket.
Michael Jackson fan or not, it is hard to not find yourself bopping along in your seat or, when encouraged, to stand to your feet and sing along. Though some more information on Jackson’s life would have been appreciated, Thriller Live is an energetic and spectacular tribute to one of the most influential artists who has ever lived.