“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.
“it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure”
Aged just nineteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C-sharp minor to world-wide acclaim, was commissioned to write his first symphony and he was engaged to the love of his life. He seemed to have it all, yet within months a depressive paranoia and anxiety had stopped him in his tracks; a darkness that no doubt came from within but was also prompted in part by Tchaikovsky’s death, and by the effortful completion of his own Symphony No. 1 which was subsequently panned by the critics. The conductor, an alcoholic, was drunk at the premiere. But Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block had already set in. He was already displeased with his composition, feeling he had peaked too early with his Prelude, and the Orthodox church was thwarting his plans for marriage.
Composing had become impossible. How do you escape the darkness and come back into the light? All this, and more, is explored in Dave Malloy’s “Preludes” which examines, in extraordinary and beautifully surreal ways, the true story of this particular episode of his life. A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This is not just another musical about a tortured artist. Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and the orchestrations has crafted an enigma. It defies categories, but also mixes them. It feels experimental but is perfectly formed, it lulls you into its trance-like dreamscape but keeps your attention razor sharp; it mixes the past, present and future. We are in a world where Mahler, Reggae, Beethoven and Doo-Wop can share the same phrase, where Acid Trance weaves its rhythms into the phrases of a Piano Concerto.
The starting point is the composer’s session with his therapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). “How was your day?” she asks – not the question to ask a damaged, depressed artistic genius three years into a stifling breakdown. Keith Ramsay, as Rachmaninoff (or rather ‘Rach’), launches into a monologue which sets the pace for a tour de force performance. Ramsay is the picture of unsettled alienation; wide-eyed and wild-eyed, uncertain of his worth. Intense, chilling and hypnotising. His words bleed into Malloy’s haunting melodies which in turn flow into Rachmaninoff’s timeless compositions.
We are never too sure if the surrounding characters are in the composer’s mind or not, but under Alex Sutton’s riveting direction they are brought to vivid life. They circle him, cajole him and bravely try to help him. Georgia Louise, as Natalya, is pivotal to restoring the composer’s state of mind with her patience, stretched to the limit at times. There are moments when their voices collide in their duets when you can forget everything. Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas II brilliantly spill out of Rach’s mind into the camera shot, thanks to the vigour, versatility and virtuosity of Steven Serlin. Norton James, as Russian opera singer Chaliapin, plays with our minds with a Mephistophelean portrayal that verges on psychedelic madness. Crucial to the piece is Tom Noyes at the piano, letting the true genius of Rachmaninoff reveal itself through the musical accompaniment.
The production transfers from stage to camera in an astounding blaze of glory. Aided by Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s eclectic sound it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure. Contradictions have never been more harmonious. The mix of classical music, musical theatre, trance beats, neon lights; introspection and overt humour, reality and fantasy, past and present, just would not work on paper. But on stage and on camera it is an intoxicating brew. Dark and beautiful. And hypnotic.