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Brighton Year-Round 2023


Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills

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

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Rethought, rejigged, bright with humour and shadowed with plangency, this is the Heathers we’re meant to have

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 Will Joy. Arrangements and Orchestration Laurence O’Keefe and Ben Green.

Till March 18th and continues touring.


It’s back. Heathers is brighter, lighter, funnier, altogether more pin-sharp than last time here in October 2021 – which seemed a bit like an expense of teen spirit. That won’t influence droves of fans. But there’s doubters who’ll have their heads turned.

So how turn Daniel Waters’ acclaimed 1989 teen black comedy into a musical? He wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct it, Dr Strangelove style. If you don’t know it, that’ll furnish a clue.

Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe still answer with a previously uber-loud 2014 rock comedy, can-belto numbers with superb orchestration now less drowned from under the stage. The lyrics when you can hear them are really fine, but the music’s not period-quoting: you get that from soundtracks before the curtain-up on the two acts. New musical director Will Joy adds a delicacy missing last time.

Director Andy Fickman cracks the pace, Gary Lloyd (also Associate Director) produces spot-sharp choreography and the cast are exceptional including lead Jenna Innes (Veronica Sawyer) and Elisa Bowden’s Heather Chandler.

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.

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 (Kingsley Morton) whose gentle ‘I get it, you’re with the Heathers now’ isn’t the only warning.

Veronica now attracts cute newbie Jason JD Dean (Jacob Fowler) Baudelaire-in-hand who upbraids her self-betrayal as insouciantly as he dispatches bullies Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney (Alex Woodard, Morgan Jackson, a superb double-act who shine way beyond their Rocky six-packs) 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 Conor McFarlane’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 (Billie Bowman) 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 (Katie Paine, with a superb solo) 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! They’re funnier this time too, sharper, wittier, more present.

The fine O’Keefe/Ben Green orchestrations do what they can with an unrelenting style: no stand-outs but ‘Seventeen’ and others grow on you and just seem more memorable now. Best are the quiet numbers indicated. In addition sound designer Dan Samson blasts everything to 110 decibels, blurring the first act’s lyrics, but improves in Act Two. Can’t be good for the cast. And lyrics are so good it’s a pity they’re drowned, particularly at the start; even if we can hear more of them now.

Innes however is exceptional. Bowden bad-asses winningly too, forced to brash in-role screech points as Heather Chandler. Fowler is superb as JD, getting studious, seductive and serpentine in a tenor purr, and his duets with Innes are mesmerising. Elise Zavou as Heather Duke has a promisingly cut-through voice, Bowman as Heather McNamara like Innes is able to call upon quieter vulnerable tones latterly, displayed to real advantage.

Morton as Martha in her professional debut is outstanding, a strong lyric soprano already with a hint of dramatic coloratura. Like Innes, Fowler, Bowman, Woodard, Jackson (and others), we’ll be hearing – with luck – far more of her.

Paine as Fleming and Veronica’s Mum modulates anxiety with professional suavity. McFarlane’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) Jay Bryce 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 McFarlane 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. Markus Sodergren’s Preppy Stud, Tom Dickerson’s Beleaguered Geek and Officer Milner, Liam Dean’s Hipster Dork/Officer McCord, Summer Priest’s Republicanette, Maeve Byrne’s Stoner Chick, Eleanor Walsh’s Drama Club Drama Queen, Lizzie Emery’s Midwestern Surfer Punk.

Hard-bitten critics have been converted by this production. It’s altogether finer than its 2021 incarnation. Rethought, rejigged, bright with humour and shadowed with plangency, this is the Heathers we’re meant to have – with a few tweaks from the sound, please!