Heathers The Musical
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
On its release in 1989, Heathers was an unorthodox type of teen movie. This was a frightening and psychologically-charged black comedy in decade saturated by John Hughes schmaltz. It sees social-climbing Veronica Sawyer infiltrate her school’s reigning clique the Heathers in a bid for popularity. That is, before she is seduced by the mysterious new boy at school JD, and the pair begin to bump off the bullies in a string of gruesome murders they disguise as suicides.
A 16-year-old Winona Ryder was Veronica, Christian Slater her brooding lover. It was both hilarious and disturbing, it infiltrated patterns of speech–“Jealous, much?”–and became an enduring cult classic. In 2010, it was adapted into a musical, which has seen huge success Off-Broadway and now, after a sell-out run at The Other Palace, it arrives on the West End.
High school, with all its over-inflated caricatures, lends itself perfectly to the stage, and Lawrence O’Keefe (who wrote Legally Blonde The Musical) and Kevin Murphy have reimagined Westerberg’s monsters with panache. The Heathers are all kilts, scrunchies, and shoulder pads, jostling alongside the letterman-jacketed homophobic jocks. The film’s tongue-in-cheek snark is all here: an early scene has a Heather bent over a toilet bowl while her friend rolls her eyes, “Bulimia’s so ‘87.”
At its core, though, Heathers is a brutal revenge fantasy which sends up teen suicide and student-on-student killings. It was edgy in ‘89, but might it hit too close to home now, nearly 30 years on? A TV reboot planned to air earlier in the US has been abandoned in the wake of recent school shootings.
Presumably, to sidestep some controversy then, the musical has softened its edges. And it does work: Veronica is played exuberantly by writer and YouTube star Carrie Hope Fletcher, captivating to watch and vocally commanding, particularly on songs Beautiful and Seventeen. She is winning in an earnest, at times droll portrait of young love and devotion–wholly sympathetic now, and not complicit in the crimes.
Jodie Steele is most delicious of all as Heather Chandler: reveling in her scathing, unapologetic hideousness, even more, nightmarish in death as she haunts Veronica like a menacing gargoyle ghost. Jason Muscato is the unsettling JD, shuddering in an overcoat, reciting lines of Baudelaire and lurking in the local 7-11. His bloodthirstiness is explained away by a “troubled past” backstory, making it mildly redemptive. The message is: be kind to each other, be friends with one another, it’s tough out there for a teen!
The show, in all its overblown, bad-taste camp, is very clever and often laugh-out-loud funny. Songs like I Love My Dead Gay Son and Dead Girl Walking are smart and witty, and a game audience and the knowing charm of the cast make this super fun to watch. But, as it glosses over Heathers’s grim, sadistic core with shades of High School Musical-style jollity, one can’t help but wish this musical had pushed further toward the terrifying extremes that made the movie such a scream.
Until November 24
This article first appeared in Inews on September 14, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.