Theatre Royal, Haymarket – until 24 November 2018
You thought there were enough school-themed musicals? What with Bring it On, School of Rock and our own dear cross-dressing Jamie…? Make room, here comes Heathers. It was that cultish movie with the three bullying Queen-Bee girls, all called Heather, and Veronica who tries to join but falls in with a cool yet psychopathic geek boyfriend. Now it’s a musical, with the murders starting briskly at about 40 caterwauling, leaping dancing minutes into Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s creation…
Imagine Grease, rewritten by a Joe Orton fan high on Diet Coke and back-bedroom Satanism, yearning for knee socks on sturdy female legs and suffering from a needy urge to outrage public taste. When the film came out, set in Reagan’s 1989 world when The Simpsons was considered edgy and anarchic, it became a cult.
It still is, if the number of bobbysox outfits and Westerberg High sweatshirts in the stalls is anything to go by (I do not judge the whooping dress-up fans, not after myself turning up at Bat Out of Hell in a Bat Out of Hell T-shirt). The point is that those who love the film will probably love the musical. Or fill the seats, anyway.
It was an Off-Broadway hit and then delighted Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace on a smaller scale without inviting press. How well it does in this high-profile exposure we shall see. It will be a useful barometer of public taste, since its USP is extreme tastelessness and its musical default mode an amplified belting of really very same-y tunes.
Carrie Hope Fletcher is Veronica, feverishly supported by a likeable ensemble and a nicely pallid Jamie Muscato as JD the bookish boyfriend turned killer thanks to having a Dad in the demolition business and “freezing his brain” with ice-pops. And there is a hilarious rendering of the chief bitch-Heather: Jodie Steele pretty much hijacks the show, composedly vicious in life and barmily so in ghosthood.
For she indeed gets killed early on, a fake suicide note forged with artful reference to her reading of The Bell Jar. Before long two maraudingly rapey jocks share her fate, another fake note suggesting they were gay suicides. This enables the school leaders, mercilessly guyed, to hold excruciating therapeutic pep rallies for suicide prevention. There is something irresistible, horribly so, about the big number where staff and pupils sentimentally hymn the human merits of the girl who had none to speak of, and clasp her ghost to their bosom. As for the boys, the gay-acceptance assembly is even heavier with irony, given that they weren’t: one has to giggle at the Dad suddenly seeing the liberal light with “I never cared for homos much until I reared me one”.
Indeed the lyrics are the real pleasure of this show: you can even nod profoundly at Veronica’s sudden remorseful “we’re damaged, really damaged, but that doesn’t make us wise”. A few confessional columnists might take that to heart.
But that – and the conclusion – are cheating moments in a story which someone described as “The nastiest cruellest fun you can have without studying law or or girding on leather”. And as long as you stay on that wavelength it is fun. But it walks a tightrope: the moment the wild dancing and the snappy lyrics ease off or get inaudible you may wince. How tolerant is London, a few days after suicide prevention day , with youthful mental welfare an anxiety and school massacres reported in the US every month? Are we sufficiently, callously tired enough of being preached at on the subject to welcome a blast of black and rackety cynicism?
I dunno. Maybe. I did laugh a lot, until it palled.
www.heathersthemusical.com to 24 November