High school movies were all the rage in the eighties, epitomised by the detention kids in The Breakfast Club, or Ferris Bueller and his infamous day off. One such high school movie, despite a relatively poor show at the box office, has gone on to achieve cult status, spawning numerous catch phrases and fond reminiscences for the scrunchie. Based on the Winona Ryder movie, Heathers The Musical was a big hit off-Broadway resulting in calls to bring it to this side of the Atlantic. First workshopped, and then presented at The Other Palace, it now makes its West End premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
This musical version sticks pretty close to the plot of the original movie, although the darker themes are given a more buoyant makeover, making the characters more caricatures of the original. The typical school yard hierarchy is turned on its head when social outcast Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher) joins a group of three girls, all named Heather, who undisputedly rule the roost at Westerberg High. Then along comes moody and mysterious newcomer James ‘J.D.’ Dean, who captures Veronica’s heart while embarking on a small killing spree.
With the murders disguised as suicides, it opens up an exploration of that most difficult time of our lives, interestingly of course this is set in the pre-social media days of 1989, but the students own perceptions of their struggles seem no less intense. Writers Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe have gone at this full throttle and while the result is more kitsch than, say Dear Evan Hansen, there’s a clear recognition of mental health issues and the effect of societal pressures.
As Veronica, Carrie Hope Fletcher demonstrates her strong vocal ability, no stranger to the West End she looks right at home on this stage. But, despite the “starring Carrie Hope Fletcher” tagline, this production of Heathers The Musical is so much more than one person, with a diverse and talented cast delighting the audience at every opportunity. Take Jenny O’Leary’s Martha Dunnstock, ostensibly a comedy character, given heart and soul by O’Leary’s captivating performance, particularly during her very poignant rendition of ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’.
The Heathers themselves are a delight to watch, Jodie Steele’s Heather Chandler embodies the mean girl spirit while still allowing us to see a deeper character. T’Shan Williams as Heather Duke, and Sophie Issacs as Heather McNamara, both grasp the opportunity to establish their character’s worth in their respective solos; ‘Never Shut Up Again’ and ‘Lifeboat’. Dominic Anderson and Christopher Chung are the perfect pairing as the high school jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly, their friendship feels genuine and touching.
To find the true stand out performance of this musical, you need to look beyond the ‘cool kids’, because it is Jamie Muscato as J.D. who is perfect in every way. His vocal talents allow him to navigate the lyrical complexities of songs like ‘Freeze Your Brain’, while each aspect of the characters troubled past, and disturbing present is etched in to Muscato’s physical frame. It is when Muscato and Fletcher perform together in duets, such as ‘Seventeen’ and ‘I Say No’, that the production feels truly magical.
Andy Fickman has directed a bright and bold production which oozes with comic brilliance, paired with Gary Lloyd’s choreography, which comes in high octane bursts. David Shields design sees a set which is essentially just a bigger version of what they had at The Other Palace, yet manages to fill the stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket with slick transitions.
Heathers The Musical is for all intents and purposes a watered down version of the film, and the emotional and psychological tension is delivered through a colourful haze of frolic and catchphrases. It’s a fun musical hiding a serious message, but it’s cult status and casting means audiences are raising the roof at every performance, it’s sure to be a hit.