By Melissa Blease Heathers: The Musical | Theatre Royal Bath until 25 March
Bulimia, homophobia, bullying, teen suicide, sexual assault and murder: such are the themes that underpin the storyline of Heathers: The Musical, based on Michael Lehmann’s cult 1989 film of the same name, now shaken up and enjoying cult status in its own right.
At first glance of that opening list of distinctly dark topics, you wouldn’t imagine this spirited adaptation of Lehmann’s dark coming-of-age comedy-drama to be a fun night out at the theatre. But ever since an everyday tale of violent gang life in 1950s America shook the musical theatre genre to the core almost seven decades ago, modern musicals, it seems, rock along to their own, distinctive beat far removed from the syrupy boy-meets-girl two-step, and the ongoing success of shows such as Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon and even Evil Dead: The Musical have proved that ‘cancel culture’ isn’t quite the cultural driving force that the GB News drama queens would have you believe it is.
Heathers: The Musical may be set in an American high school (Westerberg High, to be precise) circa the mid-1980s, but the social hierarchy is all too contempo-familiar: there are the cool, cruel, bitchy, pretty girls (in this instance, conveniently all called Heather) ruling the social roost, and then there are the introspective, clumsy wallflowers clinging on to their every word. Veronica Sawyer is one such wallflower – until, that is, her hall pass forgery skills lead to her being invited to join the Heathers clique, leading Veronica to believe that her dreams of popularity are set to finally come true. But when she meets handsome, poetry-reading, charismatic outsider Jason ‘JD’ Dean, Veronica’s dreams are set to turn into sinister nightmares.
Were she an actual teenager in an actual high school, Jenna Innes’ bright, sharp, funny Veronica would definitely be popular in her own right – and if her personality alone wasn’t enough to elevate her to Prom Queen, her singing voice would most definitely have done the trick; girrrrrl, Innes can carry a tune. But if anti-heroes are your preferred choice of heroine, Verity Thompson’s Heather Chandler – ‘Heather #1’ – gives sexy, sassy, bad girl to the max, particularly coming to the fore when she comes back from the dead (long story) to goad Veronica from the afterlife.
As psychopathic bad boy JD, Jacob Fowler doesn’t quite get psychotic enough for my maniacal tastes; tall, dark and handsome as he may be (and he is), he comes across as nice rather than nefarious. But fortunately, the ensemble cast easily carry both him and the premonitory plot along, with jocks-in-jockstraps Alex and Ram (Kurt Kelly and Morgan Jackson respectively) working in perfect harmony as a double-act worthy of their own spin-off series (if, that is, they had survived JD’s evil plans), and Kingsley Morton as repeatedly victimised but quietly feisty Martha Dunnstock finally getting the spotlight moment she so richly deserves in Act 2.
Laden with witty, camp frills and fripperies and lightened up by the kind of Big Musical Anthems that lift the spirits even during the show’s darkest moments (My Dead Gay Son in particular is one heck of an earworm), it’s easy to see why this rather surreal, high octane, when-feel-good-turns-really-bad drama turned the audience teen-screamometer up to eardrum-assaulting levels in Bath. The film may have long since been consigned to the file marked ‘Edgy Teen Angst High School Melodrama’, but Heathers: The Musical is the cool kid in a Gen Z class of its own.