Many musicals flirt with darkness before another tune about empowerment and the power of love comes along to take the edge off, but not so Heathers The Musical which offers a relentless diet of serial killing, bullying, eating disorders, homophobia and date rape.
It’s based on the deliciously dark eighties movie Heathers which was a welcome antidote to the saccharine John Hughes films who mistook teens for young adults. Here the teens are feral locked in the cliquey hell that is a typically hieratical US high school as the cool gangs, jocks and nerds try to survive into college.
Our (anti) hero at Westerburg High School is geeky Veronica Sawyer who accidentally falls in with the bitchy cool gang trio all named Heather, who delight in making everyone’s life a misery to mask their own insecurities. Enter another outsider Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean who gradually draws Veronica into a web of murders disguised as suicides thanks to her ability to forge notes.
The world has moved on so mass high school killings, suicides and teen mental health issues are much more accepted these days, and while Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s book stay pretty true to the movie it is less bleak, pulling its punches slightly.
That said, amongst all the mayhem Heathers is still very funny in a really sardonic fashion, and much of that is due to the exquisite comic timing of Jenna Innes as the really smart Vernonia, who eventually realises that her boyfriend J.D. is just a big monster as the Heathers. Her rendition of Seventeen as Veronica just yearns to do normal teen things rather being an accessory to a murder rampage reaches out to anyone who was young once.
In the movie Christian Slater channelled Jack Nicholson as J.D. but Jacob Fowler in the trademark long black coat is more Patrick Bateman, which is actually a better artistic choice. Despite his ode to 7-11 on Freeze My Brain, Fowler offers up a wonderfully baleful bad boy.
Heathers the Musical is now a TikTok sensation as teenagers lip sync to Murphy and O’Keeffe’s up-tempo pop numbers, so this is a much younger, mainly female crowd than normal in this venue. As the three Heathers strut on they cheer before suddenly realising that they are the bad guys, until the psychotic J.D. arrives.
Relative newcomer Verity Thompson is full of scene stealing sass strutting round the stage as bad queen bee Heather Chandler. Elise Zavou as the weak Heather D and Billie Bowman’s naïve Heather M are great foils, so when they strut on for Candy Story in their iconic dayglo outfits you can’t help but think that they’re a really twisted and bitchy girl group.
The buff Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson bring plenty of laughs as homophobic jocks Ram and Kurt, whose joint ‘suicide’ make them seem a couple becoming unlikely poster boys for equality.
It’s a strong cast and an enthusiastic ensemble working well on Gary Lloyd’s group choreography, but the veterans have their moments in the spotlight too. Conor McFarlane got a massive cheer for his witty rendition of My Dead Gay Son, which suggests the next generation are not going to tolerate prejudice of any kind, and Katie Paine had great fun as hippie teacher Ms Fleming exploring her own adult issues on Shine A Light.
One thing that is noticeable is the absence of cell phones, which hadn’t been invented so neither was social media. It’s wonderfully ironic that J.D.’s murders turn the monsters into heroes, which would have been doubly so in the age of multiple social media channels.
The knowing irony of Heathers the Musical is slightly marred by a too soppy ending, but judging by the response of the lively Gen Z crowd it didn’t matter as this dark romp spoke to them about their lives rather than us crusty Gen Xs who can barely remember the hell that is senior school.
Heathers the Musical is at Bradford Alhambra theatre until Saturday 22nd June. To book www.bradford-theatres.co.uk or 01274 432000.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 18th July 2023
North West End UK Rating: