'Heathers The Musical' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket - A Review

I wasn’t quite alive when the film Heathers came out in 1989 and haven’t ever actually watched it, but its influence weighs heavily on much of my favourite popular culture, apparently. Watching the musical version from Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, which just opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, I kept finding myself thinking, "This is Mean Girls!” “This is Riverdale!” “This is Dear Evan Hansen!” but, it turns out, maybe everything is just Heathers.

Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher, in the role played by Winona Ryder in the movie) is a dorky, naive student who just wishes hellish Westerburg High School could be a friendlier place. One day, she becomes the latest project of the ‘Heathers’, the mean girls who rule the school with iron firsts and fierce scrunchies (Jodie Steele, Sophie Isaacs and T'Shan Williams). They take her under their wing and Veronica soon finds herself pulled in several directions. Her new friends (“well friends isn’t quite the right word - it’s more like they're people I work with and our job is being popular”) try to test her loyalty to her sweet longtime bestie Martha (Jenny O’Leary), who also happens to be their preferred metaphorical punching bag... and then there’s JD.

Jamie Muscato is perfectly cast as Jason ‘JD’ Dean, the new kid in the long black coat, whose laconic nihilism and casual ability to beat up the bullies immediately captures Veronica’s attention. After a nasty falling out at a party leaves Veronica feeling like an outsider too, she and JD are drawn together into a toxic relationship that rapidly takes a homicidal turn.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is giving the performance of her life in this role. As someone with a large online following for her YouTube channel, there were some accusations of 'stunt casting' when her involvement was announced, which were pretty unfair given her nearly three-year West End stint as Éponine in Les Misérables and various other musical theatre work. Her Veronica is funny, moving, relatable, and most importantly she completely nails every song, from the belt of the surprisingly raunchy ‘Dead Girl Walking’ to the more subtle, quieter moments like the beautiful, yearning ‘Seventeen’ (“Can’t we be seventeen? That’s all I want to do...”). Opposite her, Jamie Muscato is equally impressive: he has an effortlessly mellifluous voice that’s a pure joy to listen to, even as he’s singing some deeply disturbing things, and watching his JD unravel from self-assured misanthrope to entirely unhinged terrorist is downright chilling.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast - this is a supremely talented ensemble who’ve mostly been with the show since its run at the Other Palace earlier in the year and are clearly having a fantastic time together onstage. It’s also a visual delight - the dazzling 80's costumes are wonderful, and the versatile set and inventive lighting design keeps things interesting throughout.

Heathers the Musical developed a cult following after its Off-Broadway run in 2014 on the strength of its cast recording and it’s easy to see why. The songs are truly phenomenal - catchy pop rock numbers that practically beg to be sung into hairbrushes across the land. The popularity of the show and its Veronica means the auditorium has an atmosphere more akin to that of concert than theatre. The big songs and the more outrageous moments are greeted with infectious whoops and cheers of approval, and during the interval the stately golden interior of the Haymarket rocks to the tune of 80's hits like 'Mickey' and 'Take On Me', keeping momentum and excitement levels sky-high.

Thirty years after its inception, this tale of high school mean girls and bad boys can feel slightly played out, but the darkness and violence running through the heart of the story are still depressingly relevant. While is is a raucously fun show, it also tackles murder, suicide, sexual assault, bullying, homophobia, and its leading man wanting to blow up his entire school. For the most part, the book manages to navigate its sensitive material well, but there are a few moments that land a bit awkwardly in 2018 - it's possible that the male writers may have overestimated how enjoyable a pop song about escaping would-be rapists could be.

Having grown up in an entirely post-Heathers world, it's a fun challenge to keep remembering that it predates all the things it feels derivative of. This show isn't "What if Dear Evan Hansen was a comedy?" or "What if Mean Girls had more murders?", it is something else altogether. The production had in some ways a slightly rocky start in London, with a sold out run at the Other Palace that had unusually high prices for an Off-West End venue, and yet shut out critics because it was still being fine-tuned. I went into the show not really knowing quite what to expect, but it won me over, utterly and completely. The power of the songs and the performances is simply undeniable. We might not have all been Heathers, or murderers, but we've all been teenagers - or still are - and this show articulates being seventeen in all its messy, terrified, hilarious glory.