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Heathers the Musical at the Theatre Royal Haymarket | Review

My own school experiences weren’t exactly great – and another pupil died whilst I was there – and while I still defy people who assert ‘school days are the best days’, what goes on at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio (a completely fictitious school in a completely fictitious town) is on another level. Based on audience reactions at the performance I attended, the stage show has a loyal fanbase, anticipating and applauding certain punchlines – and certain punches. School communities have their various sub-groups, as does Westerburg, though after a sprightly opening number the focus is very much on just a few classmates, three of which are called Heather (hence the show’s title).

L-R Bobbie Little, Jodie Steele & Frances Mayli McCann - Heathers - Theatre Royal Haymarket - Pamela Raith Photography
L-R Bobbie Little, Jodie Steele & Frances Mayli McCann – Heathers – Theatre Royal Haymarket – Pamela Raith Photography

Plot-wise, it’s more than a little extreme, and while the production values are high, the approach taken to tackling the topic of suicide is unexpected, given that this is an all-singing, all-dancing musical set in a high school, complete with cheerleaders and ‘pep rallies’. The show manages (spoiler alert) to make light of tragic events – a large number of pills and a noose are used, separately, for the purposes of soliciting laughter from the audience, who are considered for narrative purposes to be fellow classmates at Westerburg High. (Thankfully, no audience participation is required.)

But perhaps that is the point – high school (or secondary school, as it tends to be known in the UK) is brutally insincere, and it is just as well that the show is set in 1989, before the dawn of cyberbullying and petty rumours being spread by whatever trendy social media app is in style. The production also does well to demonstrate just how easy it is to fall into a crowd that happens to have values and beliefs that one disagrees with. It also, fortunately, doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There’s a contrast between the catchy musical numbers, combined with stylish choreography (Gary Lloyd) that is a delight to witness, and the narrative, in which Veronica Sawyer (Christina Bennington) tries to navigate her relationship with Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Jordan Luke Gage), as well as family life, school challenges of various kinds, and her moral compass. The two leads are sublime in their roles, with Gage convincingly menacing as the show’s main antagonist and Bennington possessing a seriously stunning singing range, belting some songs whenever the occasion calls for it and, elsewhere, being more nuanced as appropriate. JD has, without giving too much away, a home life that I can only describe as highly irregular, which goes some way to explaining some of his behaviours.

The show doesn’t like to do things by halves. Heather Chandler (Jodie Steele) becomes increasingly likeable as the story progresses, while Martha Dunnstock (Madison Swan) was never, in a show of this nature, going to end where she started, ostracised as she was by almost all and sundry. The production concludes positively enough, sending the audience out into the night with the feeling that something positive arose out of all the storyline’s chaos. There’s sufficient plot and character development to make the show considerably weightier than it would have been if it were merely another show about teenage angst and young love.

Lauren Ward, Steven Serlin and Simon Bailey play a number of older characters between them, some of which are stereotypically out-of-touch parents or teaching staff. Others prove remarkably progressive. Also, if you’re into 1980s chart music, go early and enjoy the pre-show recorded music, which gets a second airing during the interval. Occasionally, the lyrics (in the show itself, I mean) are too repetitive, even by musical theatre standards. But it’s briskly paced, and there’s a youthful vibrancy that matches the age profile of the characters. A hardworking ensemble adds plenty of extra fire to an enthusiastic and energetic production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Westerberg High’s Veronica Sawyer is just another nobody dreaming of a better day. But when she joins the beautiful and impossibly cruel Heathers, her dreams of popularity may finally come true. Mysterious teen rebel JD teaches her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it is murder being a somebody.

LISTINGS
Bill Kenwright & Paul Taylor-Mills
By arrangement with the Theatre Royal Haymarket present
HEATHERS THE MUSICAL
By Laurence O’Keefe & Kevin Murphy
Directed by Andy Fickman
Associate Director and Choreography by Gary Lloyd
Design by David Shields
Lighting by Ben Cracknell
Sound by Dan Samson
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours 30 minutes including interval
Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4HT

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