DEAR Diary, American school shootings keep mounting up, like Donald Trump lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Heathers The Musical grows darker still, more resonant than ever, 34 years since Michael Lehmann’s savagely satirical, subversive cult 1989 teen movie swaggered in: an iconoclastic all-American high-school black comedy with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater appeal and a died-too-young death toll to rival Romeo And Juliet.
On press night for the cult show’s first York visit, the Grand Opera House is stuffed to the brim, mainly a young crowd, the late-teen and early twenties’ “Corn Nuts”, almost all female, plus some mums, a few stray men. It will be the same all week, but with better ticket availability at the matinees.
As with The Rocky Horror Show, they know the code, not only the Heathers dress code but the performative code too, hollering at the first sighting of the too-cool-for-school, ever-so-cruel trio of Heathers in silhouette, backs to the audience in stockings, miniskirts and buttoned blazers, topped off with scrunchies, in 1989 Sherwood, Ohio.
Here comes Westerberg High School’s dead-mean clique with their croquet-mallet disdain: leader Heather Chandler (Mountview Academy 2022 graduate Verity Thompson) in red, her aspirant acolyte Heather Duke (Elise Zavou) in green and the inwardly anguished Heather McNamara (Billie Bowman) in yellow.
Lit separately in their iconic colours – courtesy of Ben Cracknell’s ace lighting design – they are cheered to the rafters, and yet they represent the apogee of the dysfunctional school’s stultifying culture of derision, bullying, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and homophobia that leads to contemplation of suicide.
Looking on, like a grumpy janitor at this freshman’s party, you might shake your head in bewilderment at those deafening cheers, but Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s musical, like Lehmann’s film before it, turns out to be savvy, sassy, switched on, unlike the blinkered school principal (Jay Bryce’s Gowan) or misguided teacher (Katie Payne’s Ms Fleming). SIX The Musical has since tapped into the same vibe.
Part school inspector’s report, part cautionary tale, but explosively, darkly comical too, with knowing references to Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath and Morrissey, Heathers sings of making the world beautiful in its opening number and carries that hope beyond the graves, and maybe it is the hope that kills.
How can an average joanna of a pupil thrive in such a dangerously competitive school suffused with toxicity? Meet Veronica Sawyer (Jenna Innes), just another nobody dreaming of better days at 17 until her misappropriation of a hall pass prompts the Heathers to take her under their cliquey wing for her skills of deception.
But what is the price of popularity amid the adolescent angst, turf wars, underdogs and bitches of the school room? Enter mysterious teen rebel Jason ‘JD’ Dean (former head boy Jacob Fowler), forever dressed in outsider black, newly arrived in Sherwood with his “deconstruction worker” psycho dad.
JD has one school lesson for Veronica: “while it might kill to be a high school nobody, it is murder being a somebody,” he rules. So begins a twisted teen relationship, as unhealthy as his love of slushy drinks, one where his desire to make school a better place can only end very differently to a jocund John Hughes movie from that era.
Displaying a resolute spirit to break the monopoly of priapic sports jocks and hateful Heathers carries fatal consequences for Veronica once she hooks up with JD on his path from mystery to misery, rebel strut to sinister, vengeful sociopath killer.
O’Keefe and Murphy take a macabre story of broken childhoods, bullying and bulimia, shootings and suicide, then add sassy lyrics and knockout music rich with drama, cheese and brutally honest balladry for an impact on an operatic scale, complemented by dialogue to die for: snappy, cynical, mardy, funny, or seriously troubling, whatever the mood.
At the helm of this classroom and locker-room teen drama is American screen and stage director Andy Fickman, who steers its adrenalised, dead-funny yet poignant path with the right balance of droll, dark and daft humour, pathos, noir cool, fun and fear (of failure, abuse and life itself).
Choreographer Gary Lloyd, whose West End panache graced York Stage’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk in December 2020, brings the crackle of electricity to his bravura routines, especially when the Heathers go hell for Heather.
The ensemble has a ball too, especially in Big Fun, and nothing beats My Dead Gay Son, its camp abandon perfect for Eurovision week, opening the second half with a jolt of unexpected levity as Kurt’s Dad (Bryce) and Ram’s Dad (Conor McFarlane) suddenly get it on – spoiler alert – at their funeral.
Fickman’s direction, as much as Murphy and O’Keefe’s book, spreads the spotlight’s gaze beyond Innes’s steely girl-next-door, Veronica, and Fowler’s magnetic JD, a gothic brooder from a black-and-white B-movie in an otherwise Pop Art-coloured world. Her singing voice is assertive and yearning; his can enchant or ensnare like a snake with its beguiling beauty.
Red could be the only colour for Thompson’s viperous leader Heather Chandler, a warning sign of venom, but it is all a front for the needy insecurity within.
The broadest comic performances come from Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson’s dunderheaded dudes Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney, sports jerks who turn into a camp-comedy double act once stripped to their jocks.
Where Heathers nails it is in its exploration of the needle between pupils and the damage done. Both Veronica and JD sing of being “really damaged”, but the damage is widespread, best expressed in the vulnerable song cameos from Bowman’s disillusioned Heather McNamara (Lifeboat) and Kingsley Morton’s neglected and mocked Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Kindergarten Boyfriend).
David Shields’ mobile designs shout Eighties’ USA; Will Joy’s musical direction rocks; Heathers receives a mark of 8/10. Class dismissed.
Heathers The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, 2.30pm and 7.30pm today; 7.30pm tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york