Heather, Heather and Heather. Thanks to Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann’s 1989 cult film, these supercool high school megabitches became both style icons and emblems of all that was wrong with the cafeteria culture of the US school system.
When Veronica joins the Heathers in order to become popular, she becomes a bully and a bitch. Then she falls for the sexy, sullen new boy JD and flirts with psychopathy. Destruction follows.
The film kicked out against the angsty teen flicks of the late 1980s. This musical has also achieved cult status since its Off-Broadway tryout in 2014. Now it transfers to the West End after a weird mini-run at the Other Palace. But it takes a while to distinguish itself from other high school musicals of its ilk. The film is subversive from the start; the musical takes its time.
For the first 15 minutes, the signs aren’t great. While the film just chucked its viewers straight in and made them work things out for themselves, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s adaptation has Veronica explain to the audience who everyone is and what they’re like.
But when the stage version hits the same subversive pitch as the film – when it unleashes its darkness and demons – it really heats up. There’s the same crazed, insanely dark endpoint – now with added music – plus a thrilling score by Murphy and O’Keefe, full of bopping pop songs and moody ballads.
While there are loads of similarities to the notorious flop musical Carrie, this show takes itself far less seriously – where that show had psychics this has psychopaths.
It also features a different Carrie, this one of the Hope Fletcher variety. Her Veronica is in a constant battle between what’s right and what’s fun, and even if Hope Fletcher weren’t miked up, she would blow the fricking roof off the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Dead Girl Walking is not only a massive highlight, it improves on the film by giving Veronica some more sexual agency.
Jamie Muscato, who has a habit of excelling in weird musicals like Big Fish and Lazarus, plays JD with eye-popping intensity. He’s got a taut, straining voice that works perfectly for angsty emotional numbers like Freeze Your Brain.
Andy Fickman’s direction and Gary Lloyd’s choreography excel when it comes to the three Heathers. They sashay and preen, flicking their hips and owning the stage in perfect sync. Sophie Isaacs and T’Shan Williams brilliantly emulate their leader Jodie Steele by plastering their faces with perma-scowls.
Amid all the popping colours and garishness of David Shields’ stunning costumes, the two-tiered brick wall set is quite restrained – and a little wobbly.
That’s a minor quibble. As the show darkens, the songs become knotted things, with serious points to make. To grasp the tenor of this piece – there’s a foot-stomping, gospel-infused song called My Dead Gay Son.
There’s uncomfortable stuff here: suicide, bullying, murder, misery. But the songs aren’t sugarcoating these things; they intensify them and satirise the glamorising, patronising cultures that surround them.
Be sceptical all you like. It turns out Heathers is a masterful deconstruction of hypocrisy and a hymn to acceptance and tolerance. With a catalogue of fantastic songs and a belting cast too, Heathers takes schmaltz and sop and smashes them into smithereens with a blood-red croquet mallet.