Heathers the Musical at Theatre Royal Haymarket – review
The cult classic returns to the West End
Goodness knows, Covid-19 hasn't done much for live theatre. Grabbing at positives where one can then, it's worth noting that if it hadn't been for the pandemic there probably wouldn't have been a return season for this sassy, strident musicalisation of the cult late ‘80s movie. Furthermore, the staggered return of big productions means that performers of the calibre of Jordan Luke Gage, Lauren Ward and Frances Mayli McCann are available to take lead roles here while awaiting the continuation of their other high profile jobs (the West End's & Juliet, Dear Evan Hansen and the national tour of Les Mis respectively).
Those productions' temporary losses are definitely this show's gains: this almost entirely recast Heathers emerges as a cleverer, more exhilarating beast (although it's tempting to use another, more feminine noun beginning with "b" here) than the original iteration, which won the 2019 WhatsOnStage Award for Best Musical.
Andy Fickman and Gary Lloyd's remount is at once bolder yet more nuanced, palpably tenser and more dangerous, but also much funnier: it feels as though there's a lot more at stake now as these photogenic but foul-mouthed teens negotiate the usual anxieties about fitting in, self worth, peer pressure… with an unhealthy dose of homicide and erotic obsession thrown in for bad measure.
Daniel Waters' film was a gleeful subversion of the all-American High School trope, where a trio of young women, all named Heather, reign supreme and nasty over their fellow students, until they're brought down by a pair of charismatic outsiders, one of whom is borderline psychotic. If Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe's musical version, first seen off-Broadway in 2014, inevitably waters down the nastiness there is still more edge in Heathers than in your average tuner. There's so much good, bracing stuff here that it's almost possible to overlook the fact that the theme of teen suicide and a particularly uncomfortable scene almost depicting date rape don't really gel with the rollicking, if twisted, good time that is most of the rest of the show, or that the whole thing is played out on a unit set that might charitably be described as economical.
The new cast help immeasurably: Christina Bennington and Gage are dynamite (and if you're familiar with the story you'll know that was a pun intended) as the central pair. Bennington is super-smart, fundamentally kind Veronica, who inveigles her way in with the Heathers as a way of making her passage through High School a little more bearable, at least until she realises how much of her soul she's expected to part with. It's a magnificent performance: an homage to, but not a copy of, Wynona Rider's turn in the movie, alive to the absurdities in the plot but with a manic edge that makes it all plausible. Her adrenalised rock soprano frequently makes you hold on to your seat and gasp, threatening to rip the roof off the theatre in her big solos "Dead Girl Walking" and "I Say No". She's sensational.
Opposite her, as James Dean-esque loner JD, Gage ingeniously, and with some subtlety, suggests a damaged child with a lethal streak a mile wide. A magnetic stage presence, he also sings thrillingly.
Then there's the Heathers themselves, and they are a sashaying, primary coloured knockout: Frances Mayli McCann conveys a beguiling fragility beneath the snarling attitude and Bobbie Little turns vacuousness into comedy gold as the one with no discernible personality trait beyond a determination to emerge from the shadow of Heather #1. In this role, Jodie Steele, the only holdover from the first cast, is terrifyingly good, a viciously funny ice queen lovingly hacked out of scarlet granite.
The "grown-ups" in the company, Lauren Ward, Simon Bailey and Steven Serlin, are great fun as numerous parents and teachers, mostly in states of bewilderment or denial at what their teens are getting up to. Ross Harmon and Joaquin Pedro Valdes are terrific as a pair of ghastly sporting jocks who turn into goofy little boys when faced with the possibility that they may be on the verge of getting the sexual fulfilment they've been endlessly mouthing off about. Madison Swan makes something genuinely touching out of Veronica's discarded best friend, and scores a bullseye with her roof-rattling cri de cœur number.
Murphy and O'Keefe's exuberant soft rock score probably contains too many songs but some of them are real bangers which stand up surprisingly well in comparison to the authentic 1980s pop classics that are blasted throughout the Haymarket before the show and in the interval.
See it for the marvellous lead performances, the energy of the ensemble and the pervading sardonic wit. Crucially, the production captures a teenager's hyper-intense, if misplaced, sense that High School is the whole wide world, and that to fail here means you've failed at Life. It may not make you long to go back to school but it may make you want to dig out the movie, or even the cast album of this hugely enjoyable show. With this brilliant new company, Heathers is well worth another look.