The Other Palace, London – until 3 May 2020
Be More Chill, the viral teen sensation and Broadway phenomenon, has finally hit British shores. A simple tale of high school isolation, unrequited love and evil Japanese computers… wait, what?
This quintessentially American drama brings an original sci-fi twist to the teen angst genre. Appropriately since the script feels like it was computer generated by feeding a highly advanced AI a thousand episodes of Saved By the Bell and one episode of Black Mirror (not San Junipero). It’s obvious from about 20 minutes in that lead character and nerdy loser Jeremy will try to change himself to be popular, lose sight of the ‘real him’, temporarily become a bad person, then learn an Important Life Lesson about being true to yourself, and be rewarded for it with a conventionally attractive but quirky hot girlfriend.
The media coverage has focused on the show’s relatability, but the appeal of Be More Chill lies in its escapism, not its realism. It’s is a candy-coloured fantasy of a high school that seems to have walked straight out of 1985, where even the most unpopular loser has close friends, and the worst problem anyone has is anxiety about talking to a girl. It’s not that these issues are not universal, but… the world is literally on fire.
Don’t today’s American high school students worry about climate change, mass shootings, incarcerated migrant children, the knowledge you’re only ever one accident or bad bug or gene away from crippling medical debt, the death of affordable housing, and the huge rise in adolescent mental health problems? And this is not new. The teen genre has always been used to tackle serious issues, and on TV especially the last few years have seen a rise in thoughtful and politically aware dramas exploring the adolescent experience in contemporary America. In this context, Be More Chill feels weirdly retro, and deeply old-fashioned. Perhaps that very simplicity is the appeal, but the disconnect between the “always be true to your authentic self” message and deeply conservative book gave me cognitive whiplash.
The show leans heavily into a flamboyant queer-coded aesthetic, yet the writing is aggressively heteronormative, and apart from one throwaway joke at the end about a character being bi there’s a complete absence of LGBTQ characters. Homophobia is of course still sadly widespread, but in 2020 how many high school students would say their biggest worry is, “I want to sign up for the school play but I’m afraid people will call me gay”? (Like “I want to sign up for the school play to meet a girl” isn’t chapter one page one of the Fictional Heterosexual Male Handbook, aka the Troy Bolton Guide for how to be Unthreateningly Macho.)
But it wasn’t certain till someone name-dropped Beyonce in whether it was actually supposed to be set in the present day or not. There’s so much 80s and 90s nostalgia, it’s hard to see exactly who target audience is: actual teenagers (who possibly might regard the 1980s as some long-distant simpler-time golden age, but would likely miss references to ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and Japan’s technological domination of the late 20th century), or nostalgic adults who were themselves teens in the 80s.
Most of the criticism of Be More Chill has revolved around the female characters, who have been described as under-written and one dimensional. I was pleasantly surprised to disagree. Christine looks like a manic pixie dream girl, and yeah it’s kind of creepy how a female character written as being genuinely individualistic is there just for a male character to possess, but in her first song she mentions gun control, self-harm, ADHD, and the lack of decent roles for women in theatre. Her self-awareness forms a subversive contrast to Jeremy’s myopic narcissism, and the one slither of mature writing in the show. If anything it’s the male characters who are flat and cliched. We’re supposed to find Jeremy relatable and sympathetic, but everything about him screams “future incel.” It’s intriguing that Jeremy’s father uses military language and is unable to go outdoors, but the plotline is resolved too quickly. At every point the book misses opportunities for emotional depth. The one saving grace is Jeremy’s best friend Michael, whose stunning solo “Michael in the Bathroom” is the highpoint of the entire production, beautifully sung by Blake Patrick Anderson (a nuanced, mature portrayal of a character I wanted to spend more time with, and the one song that I found myself singing days later).
But maybe it’s stupid to watch a musical and focus on the writing, because there’s certainly a lot of positive things to said here. The actors are without exception first rate, with Eloise Davies and James Hameed in particular bringing real depth to what could easily be cliched characters. It’s always wonderful to see Six alums Millie O’Connell and Renee Lamb who bring the same blend of comedic skills and wicked dancing talent they displayed in the finest new musical of the past decade (is it tacky to include that in a review of a different musical?) to their under-written roles as the popular girl and the wannabe.
The design of the show, from the cosplay-ready costumes to Tyler Micoleau’s wonderful lighting design, is captivating and gorgeous, leaning hard into a camp-fab neon and glitter aesthetic. It’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race and post-ironic “What Character from ‘Tron’ Are You” Buzzfeed quizzes popped into a Nutribullet made of pure pink light, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise O’Connell’s pacifier-adorned Chloe was dressed for Halloween as an actual baby, and not “Girl at an illegal rave in a field circa 1995.” (I told you it was retro.)
The songs are catchy and crowd-pleasing, with insta-dopamine set pieces about smart phones and social media, and what another critic described as “Tumblr gold” lyrics like “I don’t wanna be special, I just wanna survive”. It’s clear why it’s become so beloved with the teen set. Because Be More Chill’s viral success came about via Spotify streaming, meaning many of the show’s most passionate supporters became fans without ever seeing a performance. Clever, and clearly something in the show has touched a chord with today’s youth, but catchy songs written by committee to hit the teen feelz doesn’t make up for a weak book and problematic politics. Ultimately the strengths cannot overcome the show’s fundamental flaw: Jeremy is just kind of an arsehole. It takes an evil computer trying to take over the entire world (oh stop complaining about spoilers, this really isn’t a show that rests on plot) for him to regret basically drug raping his entire school. Still, at least he almost certainly won’t go on a mass shooting spree in the future.
The Where the Wild Things Are moment was great, though
Be More Chill is on until 14 June 2020 https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/be-more-chill/