Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Heathers: The Musical … all done in the worst possible taste (Grand Opera House until Saturday 16 October)

Other than wanting to profit from a cult film’s popularity, it’s hard to fathom how the concept of Heathers motivated Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe to write the musical version, for producers to invest to stage it, and for Andy Fickman to continue directing the majority of the professional productions of the show.

Body image, eating disorders, weight, friendship groups, acceptance, sexuality, poor mental health, craving stardom, homophobic parents, wanting to massacre your annoying classmates: these teenage (and sometimes adult) issues and vices are quickly introduced. But if you wanted to start a conversation about tackling these demons, would you start with Heathers?

Maybe I’m overthinking it and underappreciating the attractive notion of a musical carved out of the horror genre?

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Veronica decides to throw her lot in with a girl gang – a trio of Heathers – purely to ease the pain of the next few years at Westerberg High School. The gauche girls demean all who fall into their shadow, conspiring to humiliate those with whom they are disappointed. Of course, the Heathers have issues of their own. But Veronica’s decision has particular consequences for her old friend Martha whose holds a flame for one of the school jocks.

At this stage, everyone in the stalls and circles might be starting to see parts of their own insecurities represented on stage. But it’s the quiet ones you need to watch. And the dressed-in-black bibliophile, JD, who has an uncanny knack of handling himself like a ninja in a fight, turns out to have a particularly dark and deadly side to his character.

Some of the other children haven’t fallen far from their parents’ tree, or have they? With first time sex (which rapidly unseated a few members of the audience), the threat of a double date rape, a mounting body count, and an explosive climax, the musical hurtles towards its impossibly saccharine denouement. It’s a finale full of cheap grace and self-forgiveness without any sign of repentance.

While showing off a powerful vocal range throughout the show, the script plays down Veronica’s obvious ruthlessness, and gives Rebecca Wickes little opportunity to develop the potential complexity of her character. Among the three Heathers, Maddison Firth is the original alpha, later succeeded by wannabe bitch Merryl Ansah, while Lizzy Parker manages to pull off an incongruous comical moment after being caught overdosing on pills. Understudy Ben Karran creates a brooding and sinister JD. The ghosts add a lot of comedy, particularly the ripped figures of Kurt (Liam Doyle) and Ram (Rory Phelan).

The precision and colour of Ben Cracknell’s lighting design accentuates key moments of drama. The sound was pretty screechy in the stalls at the performance I attended, but that might just be first night issues tuning the sound for the venue.

Martha’s solo Kindergarten Boyfriend and her duet with Veronica in the reprise of Seventeen are musical highpoints, along with the toe-tapping triumph that is My Dead Gay Son. However, Martha (Mhairi Angus) totally steals the show with her final appearance, and a protracted reversing manoeuvre that has the best comic timing of the night.

Heathers has a particularly sick storyline. It’s neither treated as snarky and sadistic parody (which might still be troubling given the subject matter) nor as a serious study of youth culture. Instead the show exists as a strange, uber-popular misfit, that defies logic to explain its enduring success. Oddly, given its subject matter, Heathers makes little effort to evoke any sense of empathy, leaving the audience as somewhat emotionally unattached onlookers. Groups of women turned up at the Grand Opera House resplendent in the striking yellow, red, green and blue outfits of their favourite characters. I’d like to think that any lone wolves who attended in dark trench coats would have been thoroughly frisked after having their Covid vaccinations checked.

Update: Having now caught up with the original film – available for free on Amazon Prime via IMDb TV with ads – Veronica is painted much more sweetly and naively on stage than Winona Ryder’s knowing cinematic horror. Heather (red) Chandler is much more vulnerable: subservient to guys and not the total top dog she is in the adaptation. The musical is peppered with crossover script references and props from the movie, some of which jar without the original context but mostly they don’t get in the way. Yet there’s a sense that the musical diminishes what depth, soul and brain that the film had captured.

Heathers will be making what’s sick beautiful at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 16 October before heading down to Dublin. To pervert a catchphrase of Kenny Everett, it’s all done in the worst possible taste. But still, performed by a cast of 15 and a six-strong band rather professionally and with solid entertainment values.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

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