I can’t tell you how good it was to be back at Leeds Grand Theatre for the first time since 4th March, 2020 – so I won’t. Seriously, they say that you should never go back but, after a disconcerting start, the place was full and masks optional, it was as though I had never been away and the pandemic was a distant memory.
Any road up, it is the show you are bothered about so let me get to it. Heathers The Musical is based on the 1988 black comedy film, Heathers, written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann. I haven’t seen it so I was approaching the musical version by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy with no preconceptions. The first thing that struck me was that it seems to be a bit of a cult show with the hard core fans dressed as their favourite characters, meaning that the the men were in preppy garb whilst there were a lot of young girls milling about in unfeasibly short skirts and thigh length stockings looking like extras from a Britney Spears video.
The action is set in Westerberg High School in the late 1980s, where a cabal of three amoral girls, all named Heather, rule the roost with the rest of the school’s population wanting to join the clique. The 17 year-old Veronica is best friends with Martha who, because of her size is known as Dump Truck. Veronica gets the Heathers off a detention by forging a note for them, thus being told she can join their gang once she has had a make-over, which obviously means her deserting Martha. This sets the tone of the piece with Veronica torn between her conscience and her ambition, a situation not helped by the arrival of a new boy in school, the enigmatic JD.
When the subjects dealt with in the show are listed it really shouldn’t work as a musical comedy, but somehow it does. Bullying, coercive relationships, murder, homophobia, racism, body shaming, gang rape and suicide being a few.
The characters are all from the American High School Check List; cool girls, nerds, outsiders, uber macho but stupid football players, hipsters, cheerleaders, staid parents, teachers who are more concerned with the school’s reputation than solving its problems etc. You get the picture.
I think that it works because, although every character is a caricature, we have all come across a few of the types in our own school days. I was at high school in the early 1960s and some of them were familiar even from back then, as I am sure they are today. I did go to an all boys school so sadly there was a distinct lack of cool girls.
As you would expect, the music, under Musical Director Phil Cornwell, is time specific with the influence of Jim Steinman and Joan Jett much in evidence, the choreography also references Toni Basil and the moves of the rock bands of the era. Speaking of the Choreography, by Gary Lloyd, there was one scene which especially appealed when Veronica, who had by now joined the Heathers, was berating her ex-bestie, Martha, in a song which saw her moves exactly mimicking those of the spirit of Heather Chandler, which was standing behind her, indicating her transition to the dark side.
The story was told far more in song than spoken word which meant that you had to pay extra attention to the lyrics in order to follow what was going on. Thanks to Sound Designer, Dan Samson, and the cast of course, this was not a problem and every word was crystal clear. The set was very versatile being able to be changed between scenes with just a small amount of scenery shifting. The Designer was David Shields. Ben Cracknell did a brilliant job as Lighting Designer with some stunning effects as well as a much needed note of subtlety, especially during Martha’s solo Kindergarten Boyfriend.
The cast was superb in their singing, dancing and acting delivering the lines with the odd knowing glance which conveyed far more than the words alone could. There were dramatic moments as well as lots of comedy, which was very non-PC and delivered with split second timing. The more outrageous scenes managed to stay on the right side of slick and not descend into farce. I am thinking of one in particular involving Andy Brady as Kurt’s Dad and Kurt Kansley as Ram’s Dad. I will not spoil it by saying anything else. Ram and Kirk, the two football players who were in turn stupidly macho and then dangerously so, were played by Rory Phelan and Liam Doyle respectively. Their moves and personal chemistry were spot on. Georgina Hagen played Ms Fleming and Veronica’s mum, two very different personalities, but between which she morphed effortlessly.
The three Heathers were Maddison Firth, Merryl Ansah and Lizzy Parker, as Chandler, Duke and McNamara in that order. Each exuded an air of bitchy superiority whilst displaying the odd moment of vulnerability. Mhairi Angus was superb as Martha ‘Dump Truck’ Dunnstock, the overweight girl who was the easy target for the Heathers and their camp followers. She displayed the exact opposite traits by starting out a victim but growing in strength as the evening progressed. Finally we have Simon Gordon as Jason ‘JD’ Dean who was cool personified. Cool is an adjective you don’t use about yourself, it is bestowed on you by others like a knighthood, and he carried the title effortlessly, unlike the Heathers who had to keep reminding others how superior they were. He was just ploughing his own furrow not caring about what anyone else thought. I will leave his story there.
The undoubted star of the show was Rebecca Wickes who was perfect as Veronica Sawyer. She began the show as a plain, somewhat frumpy 17 year-old but changed into a more glamorous creature when becoming part of the inner circle. She had the full gamut of attitudes from out and out bitch to soft hearted confidante. Her portrayal of the relationship between Veronica and JD must have resonated with everyone who has ever been let down spectacularly by an adolescent lover, or even one in later life, but keeps coming back for more punishment. Her singing, dancing and comedic touches were a delight.
I am not a fan of American imported behaviour such as Trick or Treat, Prom Nights or the mispronunciation of words such as leverage, research and resource, so the grumpy old man in me, which accounts for about 99%, shudders when the audience stands to applaud at the end of a show; we British just don’t do that kind of thing. Last night, however, it served its purpose as, when the cast came out to accept their plaudits, the band struck up to give us a chance to throw some shapes. Most just stood motionless, but when the beat hits my feet there is no stopping me. I would like to apologise, therefore, to those in Row I of the stalls and behind for having to witness an elderly gentleman doing his thing. A thing which has not been done for almost 18 months and so was in grave need of doing.
As a foot note I must explain that the photographs which appear in this article are not of the actors taking part in this production. They were provided by Leeds Heritage Theatres and taken by Pamela Raith, except for the feature photograph which is uncredited.
Heathers The Musical is Presented by Bill Kenwright Limited and is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday, 14th August. For tickets, a virtual programme and more information please go to: