Theatre Royal Haymarket
Reviewed – 12th July 2021
“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.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Theatre Royal Haymarket until 11th September
Previously reviewed by Jonathan this year:
On McQuillan’s Hill
Reviewed – 6th February 2020
“all credit to the Finborough for once again recovering a work of such significance”
A pulsating rhythm and elegant lyricism pervade the English premiere of the unsettling and darkly comic “On McQuillan’s Hill” at the Finborough Theatre.
It causes a double-take because the content of Joseph Crilly’s 2000 play is far from calm and tranquil – indeed, the politics and passion behind its Northern Ireland setting would make one expect something more explosive.
But in this well-observed work everything is far more subtle, with tension simmering beneath the surface as six characters meet in an isolated community hall in rural Ulster after an IRA prisoner is released under the Good Friday agreement. It’s a drama where the shadow of sectarian violence somehow sits comfortably alongside news of a farmer who has grown a record-breaking cucumber.
The play was first performed at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 20 years ago and it is unbelievable that such a truthful, ravishing and sometimes savage drama should have taken so long to cross the Irish Sea. So all credit to the Finborough for once again recovering a work of such significance.
An essentially uneasy domestic melodrama focussing on the Maline family slices into deeper themes of the bitter aftermath of the Troubles, malignant family history, sexuality, incest, guilt, betrayal and the legacy of ultimately futile conflict.
It’s an astonishing blend of brutality and beauty and while London may not fully comprehend the boldness and courage of that original Belfast production it’s hard to miss a rumbling contemporary resonance even as hard borders and political impasse hit the headlines.
Every character is distinctively painted in the text but director Jonathan Harden and an exemplary cast explore even greater depths to the always three dimensional roles. Behind the near mythical ambience there lie utterly credible characters. These are never less than real people with genuine lives and backgrounds.
At its heart are members of a dysfunctional family who in another world would be the subjects of a soap opera. Johnny Vivash is terrifically grizzled as the less than successful terrorist Fra Maline, a closet homosexual keen to find out why he was betrayed by former colleagues and more interested in rekindling a relationship with his ill-suited yet loyal lover Dessie (an edgy Kevin Murphy) than with his sister.
It is his sister Loretta (an emotionally charged Gina Costigan) who has bought the hall intending to convert it, but her reappearance after 20 years lifts the lid off a tureen of dark family secrets, including the long-questioned parentage of daughter Theresa (a charming and fiery Julie Maguire).
Into the mix comes the ex IRA commander Ray (a stirring and passionate Declan Rodgers)whose personal life trumps political ideology, while hovering in the background is formidable hall caretaker Mrs Tymelly (a quietly forceful Helena Bereen, who was in the original 2000 production).
Harden comprehends the unlikely humour and harsh undercurrents of this story, allowing the honesty of both story and performances to take centre stage.
The set (Norman Coates) is every inch the community hub of the past, destined to be pulled down, testimony to a discomforting past, with dimming bulbs and the detritus of past celebrations. A sombre portrait of Irish nationalist leader Robert Emmet gazes down from the wall, a reminder of past hopes and lost causes.
“On McQuillan’s Hill” still has the capacity to shock but this quality revival never loses sight of the human stories, a knowing sense of humour, and the beating heart of a nation seeking a new chapter in a troubled history.
Reviewed by David Guest
Photography by Bronwen Sharp
On McQuillan’s Hill
Finborough Theatre until 29th February
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: