Okay, I’ll admit. Upon being invited to the press night of the UK Tour of Heathers at Theatre Royal Plymouth, I didn’t know masses about it. I knew it was an American high school drama, based on an 80’s cult classic, that took some dark turns and had a massive following of passionate fans, but that was about it. And if I’m being honest, sometimes I really enjoy going into productions mostly blind, ready to be both surprised and entertained, but when it came to this production, part of me wishes that I would have perhaps been a little bit more prepared.
Heathers tells the story of Veronica Sawyer (Jenna Innes), a high school nobody in a sea of other nobodies who, in the search of an easy way through, decides to join forces with the school’s most popular students; Heather Chandler (Verity Thompson), Heather Duke (Elise Zavou) and Heather McNamara (Billie Bowman). But when she meets new kid JD (Jacob Fowler), a quiet loner, high school goes from a popularity contest to a deadly war.
I knew that this musical ventured down some dark paths, a quick glance at the trigger warnings list will give you that impression (This production contains haze, loud noises including gunshots, flashing lights and strobe, strong language and mature themes including murder, suicide, sexual violence and references to eating disorders. Audience discretion is advised). But I didn’t know quite how dark it would go, and I have to admit that I was caught off guard by it, especially in the context of today’s world where high school deaths are a reality.
Stepping away from what I have to deem a problematic, unsettling and at times completely shocking story, you can’t take away from the performances of the talented cast. Jenna Innes’ Veronica is an embodiment of the ups and downs of high school, the challenging decisions, be good or be popular, stay true to yourself or fight your way to the top. Swayed this way and that by the promise of popularity and love, she is conflicted throughout. Innes’ impressive vocals raise the roof, particularly in her performance of ‘I Say No’. Jacob Fowler, dressed head to toe in black, effortlessly becomes the piece’s troubled villain, scared and damaged by childhood events and an overbearing father. He gives a commanding performance, and it is clear to see that the character is created to somehow earn some sympathy, no matter what he does.
Verity Thompson plays top ‘it girl’ Heather Chandler, a constant presence in Veronica’s life and responsible perhaps for some of the show’s most iconic lines. She is everything you imagine in an american high school Little Miss popular, the personification of those well-known stereotypes, ruler of the school, bully, above the rules and the favourite girl of the school football players. Billie Bowman’s Heather McNamara has the biggest character arch of the three Heathers, and at times I wish we had been able to see more of this. Kingsley Morton’s Martha Dunnstock is given her chance to shine, despite her character being written as little more as the stereotypical bigger girl who finds herself the target of the bully’s many jokes.
School Jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney, played by Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson are clearly popular with the audience, and I cannot fault the performances themselves, thanks to the story, I personally couldn’t find anything to like about the characters. Their thuggish behaviour that starts off with them as school bullies and takes them down the route of sexual assault is brushed off as typical high school behaviour treated like a joke, so much so that it is expected that the audience laugh at it. And whilst many of the audience members did indeed laugh, I couldn’t find the humour in it myself.
The ensemble play a multitude of mostly unnamed students at the school, known only by titles such as Hipster Dork, Stoner Chick, Drama Club Drama Queen and Preppy Stud. In some respect, I can see the train of thought here as to why the characters were not named. They are the stereotypes that we see in many a high school story, students pushed into cliques and groups, where individualism is somewhat frowned upon. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to see some of these characters given a bit more of their own stories.
The songs are catchy little earworms, I can see why the cast recording is so popular, bouncing from high energy ensemble numbers to powerful ballads. Although, sadly, at times the lyrics did become a little bit lost under the loud music and, at times, distracting bright lights aimed directly at the audience (a little pet peeve of mine).
In terms of the story, Heathers, I believe, is a show that is designed to shock, and it certainly does. Bullying is pushed to the extreme, and some very serious topics are covered from homophobia, rape, suicide, and high school students committing murder. And whilst many theatre productions over the years have covered such topics, the way in which Heathers approaches it is unlike anything I have seen before.
To cut a long story short, it is an all singing all dancing contradiction.
One moment, the school are coming together to give an assembly raising the awareness of suicide and inviting students to open up about their mental health and insecurities, the next any attempt to open up is pushed aside under another dark joke. In all honesty, the story is a little bit all over the place and at times I couldn’t decide if it was trying to make some big statement about the lack of suicide awareness in high schools, or ultimately joke about it with some moments that could easily be seen as poor taste. Overall, does it take dark comedy a little bit too far?
I understand that this is based on a film that came out in the eighties, but some of the jokes perhaps don’t fit into today’s world in my opinion. The audience, that being said, were laughing throughout, and sometimes I could see the comedy in it. Perhaps it’s just not my style (more of a slapstick/wordplay fan myself), meaning that the jokes were simply lost on me.
Overall, I feel that you must look at Heathers for what it is, a very dark comedy that takes the stereotypical ideas of high school and pushes them to the absolute extreme. I can see why it’s much loved, and must applaud the performances, but it’s definitely not for everyone.