There’s no such thing as an unlikely musical, though some don’t stick around long enough to make an impression. Does anyone remember Fields of Ambrosia, a mid 90’s affair about a travelling executioner who falls in love with one of his victims? Revivals of Bounty are thin on the ground, though those who witnessed this David Essex stinker were impressed with the rotating ship. A musical based on Stephen King’s Carrie was always going to be a tough sell; a notorious bomb, the RSC closed the production after seven days (decades later, Carrie found a new life off Broadway).
If somebody wants to write a musical about a girl with telekinetic powers, why not adapt a cult 80’s movie about teenage suicide? The 1989 film Heathers was an excellent showcase for Winona Ryder and Christian Slater (in a performance that seemed like a junior Jack Nicholson): Heathers was also an impressive calling card for writer Daniel Hamm and director Michael Lehmann, though neither reached these dizzy heights again. Heathers was a film which punched above its weight; its almost irrelevant that it made no money, the film’s DNA is visible in various modern high school movies like Donnie Darko, Mean Girls and Assassination Nation.
Musical duo Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe keep the 80’s setting, and also Westerberg High School; less an education establishment, more a tank filled with sharks and piranhas. The ‘Heathers’ are a trio of shallow girls, who specialise in being popular and beautiful, whilst making life hell for those they consider socially inadequate (’kicking nerds in the nose’, to quote the song Candy Store). As a simple survival strategy, geeky Veronica (Rebecca Wickes) sidelines uncool friend Martha Dunstock (Mhairi Angus), and ingratiates herself with the aforementioned bitch-clique. She starts dressing like the ‘Heathers’, and attracts attention from brainless high school jocks. But Veronica realises she’s made a mistake after meeting enigmatic loner J.D. (Simon Gordon), a kindred spirit with a similarly cynical view of humanity. J.D.’s plan to make the world a better place involves killing all the awful people – starting with head girl Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth). If you want the plot in a nutshell, it’s the tale of a girl who winds up dating a psychopath, and is willing to let things slide … for a while.
Not every song hits the bullseye, but the strike rate is generally high (‘My Dead Gay Son’ is destined to become a musical theatre standard in years to come). The cast – several of them virtual newcomers – have enough energy to bring a rusting wind farm whirring back to life. There isn’t space to mention everyone but Maddison Firth makes a big impression, coming across like a cross between Britney Spears and Medusa. Simon Gordon brings an air of low key tragedy to J.D., particularly during the song ‘I Am Damaged.’ The show’s secret weapon is Rebecca Wickes, who is in virtually every scene, and attacks the material with a winning mix of charm, vulnerability and demented enthusiasm (her crazy cackling is infectious.) A special mention to Mhairi Angus, for her touching rendition of the song ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ (‘Certain girls are meant to be alone.’)
One of the best ways to confront painful issues – neglect, abuse, rape, homophobia – is through black humour. Murphy and O’Keefe keep a lot of the film’s classic lines (‘Bulimia is so 87!’) though cleverly build on the source material. Director Andy Fickman adds several surprises of his own. This creative trio are entirely sure of their audience: Heathers the Musical is designed for freaks and outsiders, and will resonate with anyone who has been bullied or broken. Which perhaps explains why the show has attracted such a devoted fan base; it’s great to see audience members turn up in character (and then wait patiently outside the stage door after the performance, to meet the cast).
Where Heathers the Musical trumps its source material is in its final heartfelt plea for tolerance and unity. ‘Listen up folks, war is over, brand new Sherriff’s come to town/We are done with acting evil, we will lay our weapons down.’ Closing song ‘Seventeen’, with its euphoric refrain ‘We’ll make it beautiful’, was enough to send the audience into a paroxysm of ecstasy. Given how shitty the modern world has become, Heathers the Musical has arrived at exactly the right time; it feels like a powerful torch cutting a path through a dark, frightening forest.
Heathers the Musical UK Tour is at The Palace theatre, Manchester from 5-9 October 2021.