“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.
“we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits”
This year, in the fourth of the Union Theatre’s ‘Essential Classics’ seasons, director Phil Willmott has turned to the theme of ‘Enemies of the People’, highlighting the process by which a ruling elite can attempt to silence not just opposition but also more benign threats that come in the shape of a ‘free spirit’. History has often taught us that the privileged class does not always know what is best for the common good; an argument that comes to the fore in the new musical, “Can-Can!”.
Not to be confused with Cole Porter’s fifties musical of the same name, also set in 1890s Paris, “Can-Can!” takes us into the heart of La Belle Époque, when Paris, formally scandalised by its artistic community, began to celebrate these former outcasts. Willmott’s production, directed by Phil Setren, is brazen and brave, capturing the very exuberance of the period. A real kaleidoscope of a show, it wears its influences openly. Taking as its starting point Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, which introduced the Can-Can dance to the world, it fuses operetta with music hall and transplants it into a plot loosely based on Arthurs Wing Pinero’s ‘Trelawny of the Wells’. Onto this already rich backdrop are added the real-life cabaret characters from the Moulin Rouge (in particular Jane Avril and ‘La Goulue’) made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings (the artist himself is also painted into the scenario).
The concept is fascinating, and inspired decisions are made. But like the assortment of source material, the show itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It takes until the second act to find its true tempo. For a musical comedy the timing sometimes slips and misses the pulse, while the rhythm of the dialogue suffers from palpitations. But the choreography does not miss a beat. Adam Haigh’s routines are simply stunning, thrillingly performed by the all-dancing cast whose energy threatens to burn a hole in Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s evocative rotating set. Further aided by Penn O’Gara’s authentically flamboyant costumes, we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits.
The script, however, occasionally threatens to douse the fuse that is leading to the explosive finale. But luckily the spark manages to stay alight thanks to a story that bears all the hall marks of a well-structured, crowd-pleasing yarn. Jane Avril (the subtly operatic Kathy Peacock) gives up the stage when she decides to marry her well-healed sweetheart, Christian Bontoux (Damjan Mrackovich) only to find life unbearably dull, trapped in her fiancé’s austere household that detests her unrestrained personality. Escaping back to the theatre, she breaks her own heart as well as that of her beloved, who has also defied his tyrannical father in order to pursue the troubadour life.
If the action occasionally lags it is soon buoyed along by some stand out moments: the dream-like ballet sequence between Peacock and Mrackovich; or the final scenes of reconciliation during which Phil Willmott’s authoritarian character finally secures the audience’s sympathy. Secrets are revealed in some heartfelt revelations to the famous Cabaret Queen ‘La Goulue’ (a marvellously camped up performance from PK Taylor) that give us a surprising back story.
Despite a few splutterings on the way, “Can-Can!” ends with a bang and reminds us of the true intention of the piece. Which ultimately is to entertain. That it succeeds is confirmed by the exuberant hand-clapping from the audience along to the closing number.