Pictures: Pamela Raith

Heathers – The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Is it a teen comedy . . . a high-school horror . . . a psycho-socio drama . . . well all three really and then some, this is Heathers – The Musical, a sort of Grim Reaper does Happy Days.

The laughs are there, and there are some wonderful lines, but they echo along the darker corridors of Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio where we first meet The Heathers.

For those of you who do not know the cult 1989 film – and many of the audience on Press night were no more than a twinkle in their parent’s eyes then I suspect – The Heathers are the in crowd, three offspring of wealthy parents, all by chance named Heather, a trio who rule the roost with a mix of sexual attraction, well honed nastiness and well developed cruelty.

They generate that strange combination in people of wanting to be befriended, i.e. tolerated, by the terrible trio, while at the same time being wary of them with a side helping of loathing and hatred. Ah, the unpredictable, predictible life of a teenager.

Leader of the pack is Heather Chandler, played with delightful sexy bitchyness by Verity Thompson, who is dead good . . . or should that be good dead . . .

Heather Duke and Heather McNamara are her lieutenants, which, on Press night were played by understudies Summer Priest and Eliza Bowden who slipped into the parts with confident maliciousness- although, to be fair you actually started to feel for Heather McNamara in the second act when suicide becomes an apparent epidemic.

Then we have a sort of Heatherette in Veronica, who relates her diary entries to us. Veronica, played with delightful style and powerful voice by Jenna Innes, has a talent for forgery. It is a talent which saves the Heathers from detention, which buys their undying . . . bit of recognition. A forger can be useful so they give dowdy Veronica a makeover to recreate her as a Heather Lite.

The opening threatens to be a sort of high school musical affair, with Veronica best friends with Martha Dunnstock, who is nicknamed Dumptruck. Martha is, should we say, well upholstered, and ladies in larger sizes are meat and drink to the taunting of The Heathers who make life a misery for anyone they can pick on.

martha and veronica

Kingsley Morton as Martha and Jenna Innes as Veronica

Kingsley Morton plays the part with real heart and she has a quite beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. Her bittersweet Kindergarten Boyfriend as she comes to terms with the suicide she is about to attempt, its a real show highlight as her happy dreams and hopes of childhood are dashed once the real, cruel, no prisoners world takes over.

In her case it was a love affair with Ram that lived on in her mind long after it had died in kindergarten. Ram, played by Morgan Jackson, is a jock, junior partner to Kurt, the school’s star quarterback, played by Alex Woodward.

At the moment of creation we can assume Ram and Kurt were given the choice of brains or muscle, and once their shirts come off we know which they chose, they can probably bench press 100 kilos, but struggle with the square root of four.

They are too stupid to be really dangerous as they give us plenty of laughs, but there is a sinister side to the pair, such as when they attempt a date rape with Veronica, who luckily remembers a self defence class from long ago, and the old adage that a kick in the nuts often offends.

And through it all we have the Grim Reaper himself with Jacob Fowler as Jason Dean, JD to his friends, or it would be if he had any.

JD is a drifter, a tumbleweed character, hauled around the country by his father, played by Conor McFarlane, who is a demolition something or other. His choice of explosives, ammonium nitrate and diesel, aligns him more with terrorist car bomb makers than demolition professionals, while charm has not so much passed him by as avoided him completely.

All of which could explain JD and what he has become. There is more in his past than his psycho father, his dead mother who waved at him as she died for instance, and rootless and friendless, he finds in Veronica a kindred spirit, at least he thinks so, in his mission to rid the world of nasty people, leaving just the normal people . . . like him. Normal being as common as unicorns when it comes to people. One thing going for JD though, he has a splendid, light-tenor singing  voice.

And he is different enough for Veronica to fall for him -we might not have a red light district but we do get a red light scene which leaves little to the imagination. They have a form of love and to his eternal credit JD claims he would die for her and then proves it to save her in the final dramatic scene.

With three deaths by the interval this is a show that could run out of body bags except Katy Paine steps in as Ms Fleming, an aging hippy teacher, with a razzmatazz, invite TV along, anti-teenage suicide rally with all the students taking part.

veronica and JD

Veronica with Jacob Fowler as JD

She tells us that deciding whether to kill yourself or not is the biggest decision a student can make. No doubt if you decide to commit suicide then it’s something you are going to have to live with. It all works out, despite the rally, pretty well. The ghosts of Heather C, Ram and Kurt are hanging around, providing spiritual fun, Veronica is taking The Heathers on a let's be nice to everyone journey, and she is friends again with Martha.  Murder is in the past and no one lives in the past.

It brings to an end a fast paced, high powered musical with plenty of songs about teenage angst and desire. The lyrics and book from Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe are telling and at times poignant, the music though is more so so, no real showstoppers in there, no hit tunes and all a bit samey, albeit well presented by the six piece band under musical director Will Joy.

The music wasn’t helped either by a rather unbalanced sound which overpowered and lost lyrics at times, something which improved as the show went on. It is something that can be a problem on first nights in a new theatre for touring productions.

David Shields’ set is a masterpiece of simplicity with a few blocks and doorways creating homes, bedrooms, school hall, cemetery, fields . . . whatever needed, all assisted and enhanced by Ben Cracknell’s intelligent lighting.

The result is a high octane, teen musical which flies along with laughs, a whole host of songs and a meander through some of the social issues - and that is where a feeling of unease arises.

Anyone with red hair, glasses, a weight problem - any deviation from what is seen as the norm will know what it is like to be the butt of cruel jokes at school, and poor old Martha gets it from the start. Then there is Heather D and her bulimia which is passed off as being passé, when it is still a problem with hospital admissions for eating disorders rising.

Chief tormenter Heather C is sent to meet her maker as some sort of folk hero with all the bad bits of her personality – essentially most of her – painted out, and we laugh along and there are no recriminations for her untimely death, a suicide according to the forged note.

Date rape and gangbanging is reduced to entertainment, Veronica might win, but it is an uncomfortable episode, as is turning Veronica’s make-up invite to Ram and Kurt for a session of three in a bed into a joke. And what rhymes with bed? As a clue it starts with d, four letters, and that is the ultimate climax for our randy football stars who are to spend the rest of the show as ghostly apparitions in Y-fronts.

And not only that, having ruined Veronica’s reputation by lies about her being an easy slut, the tables are turned when their deaths are flagged as gay suicides.

The musical is entertaining, the cast wonderful with acting and singing of high order, but the subject matter, murder, eating disorders, shaming and taunting, suicide, homosexuality, and, especially in the gun-totin' USA, violence in schools, all being turned into a black comedy does make you a little uneasy, it desensitises important issues, but perhaps that is the point, the issues have become desensitised and Heathers not only highlights them but invites us to laugh at them, and that is something that makes you think.

Directed by Andy Fickman, Heathers will be ruling the roost to 20-05-23.

Roger Clarke


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