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Brighton Year-Round 2021


Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills

Genre: Adaptation, American Theater, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Satire, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Book, Music and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe based on the film by Daniel Waters. Director Alan Fickman, Choreography and Associate Director Gary Lloyd, Designer David shields, Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell, Sound Designer Dan Samson, Musical Director Phil Cornwell. Arrangements and Orchestration Laurence O’Keefe and Ben Green. Till October 30th and continues touring.


How turn Daniel Waters’ acclaimed 1989 teen black comedy Heathers into a musical? He wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct it, Dr Strangelove style. That might furnish a clue.

Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe answer it with an uber-loud 2014 rock comedy, can-belto numbers with superb orchestration rather drowned from under the stage. The lyrics when you can hear them (more on that in a mo) are really fine, but the music’s not even period-quoting: you get that from soundtracks before the curtain-up on the two acts as if admitting the music’s blare-blandness. Turn-off? The mostly young audience not only know the songs, they get to punchlines almost before the cast.

The show’s blessed with so much though. Director Andy Fickman cracks the pace, Gary Lloyd (also Associate Director) produces spot-sharp choreography and the cast are exceptional including lead Rebecca Wickes (Veronica Swayer) and Maddison Firth’s Heather Chandler – both straight out of Six.

David Shields’ smoky school-building set features cutaways, gallery, props, dry ice, moody skies between windows and a kiosk for most elsewheres, twinned with stunning spot-lighting. We’ve seen Ben Cracknell produce exceptional work but he surpasses himself here, with different-hued directionals for each of the colour-coded Heathers.

So there’s your answer. A mismatch of all the talents that canny producer Bill Kenwright knows is a sure-fire for those who take it all in. If you know the film (a critically-acclaimed flop turned cult) you’ll see how it’s squeezed into the very genre Waters intended to rip up: the feelgood coming-of-age high-school graduation musical.

Of course there’s always Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s minor plot tweaks but these work well, simplifying the constraints of a musical. Heathers’ plot still unfolds in an ample two hours thirty-five including interval! The challenge lies in how to mine the dark and not gloss it. You could get wicked. Not so here.

Westerburg High School’s true name is School for Bullies. Smart Veronica, desperate to escape this, forges papers for the three dominant rich Heathers (Chandler, Duke, McNamara) and is taken up as factotum, given a makeover that pushes her away from big bestie Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus) whose gentle ‘I get it, you’re with the Heathers now’ isn’t the only warning.

Veronica now attracts cute newbie Jason JD Dean (Simon Gordon) Baudelaire in hand who upbraids her self-betrayal as insouciantly as he dispatches bullies Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney (Liam Doyle, Rory Phelan) who try beating him up as gay and lie sprawling in agony for their trouble.

Maybe JD learns more than he knows from his psychotic father, demolition specialist Big Bud (first of the excellent Kurt Kansley’s roles) who unwittingly blew up his wife when she decided she’d had enough and climbed into a condemned building to wave goodbye to JD then aged ten. Does things to him.

Veronica baulks at the latest cruelty on Martha, and at a party admits she wrote a fake note on Martha’s kindergarten crush Ram, tells everyone it’s over.

Here could be an ending. But after the lovers unite in a raunchy ‘yes, yes’ (‘Our Love is God’) the storyline darkens. JD accompanies Veronica on a reconciliatory visit to dominant Heather Chandler, mix a trick cocktail each (JD as a joke), but Veronica presents JD’s by mistake.

Then something we might wonder at now post-#MeToo. Heather Macnamara lures Veronica to a field where those two bullies are waiting. There’s more drama, more consequences courtesy of JD.

The second act snatches at a redemptive arc. Veronica saves Macnamara who’s been even more exploited by head Ms Fleming (Georgina Hagen) on televising teen suicide issues. We get a tender duet here, ‘Lifeboat’, and later after Martha too tries the same thing a reconciling one with her and Veronica too in a reprise of ‘Seventeen’ at the end. There’s far more plot you’ll see for yourself, including revenants commenting on the action!

The fine O’Keefe/Ben Green orchestrations do what they can with a brash unrelenting musical style: no stand-outs, tuneful but – unless you’re a fan – nothing to take out whistling. Best are the quiet numbers indicated. In addition sound designer Dan Samson blasts everything to 110 decibels. Maybe he’s asked to, maybe they think it’s like the Hollywood Bowl drowning out teen fans in a 10,000 venue. Can’t be good for the cast.

Wickes however is exceptional and as Six proves, deserves far higher-calibre music. That’s true of her Six co-star Firth too, forced to brash in-role screech points as Heather Chandler. Gordon is superb as JD, getting studious, seductive and serpentine in a tenor purr. Merryl Ansah as Heather Duke has a cut-through characterful voice, Lizzy Parker as Heather McNamara like Wickes is able to call upon quieter vulnerable tones latterly, displayed to real advantage.

Angus as Martha in her professional debut is superb, a strong lyric soprano already with a hint of dramatic coloratura. Like Wickes and Firth (and others), we’ll be hearing – with luck – far more of her.

Hagen as Fleming and Veronica’s Mum can modulate anxiety with professional suavity. Doyle and Phelan as Kurt and Ram have less to do vocally but shine beyond their six-packs. Kansley’s big moment – apart from brutish Bud Dean – is as Ram’s Dad where he duets brilliantly with the equally apparent homophobe, Kurt’s Dad (also Veronica’s and Principal) Andy Grady who plays it straight till the last moment.

It’s the biggest swerve from the film where at the opening of Act Two they suddenly duet as Kansley leads off with ‘My Dead Gay Son’ and reveal their own desires with sudden rainbow ties. It’s fun, a great moment, if a catch-up from a later era pulling the musical elsewhere.

Smaller roles are well taken. Benjamin Karran’s Preppy Stud, Sam Stones’ Beleaguered Geek and Officer Milner, Callum Connolly’s Hipster Dork/Officer McCord, Rhiane Drummond’s Republicanette, Bayley Hart’s Stoner Chick, Daisy Twells’ New Wave Party Girl and Dance Captain, May Tether’s Drama Club Drama Queen (also Understudy Veronica).

So how could this work aesthetically? That might seem redundant in a sell-out run, but there was potential for classic treatment. There’s a derangement Heathers cries out for: a touch of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or Assassins, the glorious wheels-off moment ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ in Gypsy. It’s a pitch-dark JD above all, the Heathers, Ms Fleming, Bud Dean, even Veronica might revel in.

No, Heathers couldn’t be like these classics, but a thoughtful shadow-side dominating sunbursts of brash that it tonally subverts might have made Heathers a great black-edged musical. Sometimes the dark is light enough. Meanwhile enjoy an exceptional cast, choreography and production talent you’ll long to see again in something finer.