If you were to pitch an idea for a feel-good high school musical (or perhaps a movie) in which a charismatic but unhinged student murdered his peers, would it get the green light? Would we be able to set aside from this hypothetical plot all the real life high school atrocities that have taken place in America since Columbine in 1999, leading right up to Florida’s Stoneman Douglas (17 dead) earlier this year?
I ask because multiple murders in a high school is central to the story in this impressively put together musical, and also to the 1988 movie that inspired it. So as the plot set in the fictional Westerberg High unfurls, it chimes so uneasily with the real world that Andy Flickman’s slick – and slightly sick – production is in danger of feeling like a bad joke at a funeral.
Granted, the soaring soft rock score by Kevin Murphy and Legally Blonde’s Laurence O’Keefe delivers often-irresistible rushes of energy. And the show is funny too. The heroine is geeky Veronica, played by Winona Ryder in the movie but here by the immensely likeable Carrie Hope Fletcher. In a bid to become popular, Veronica befriends the three feared and lusted-after Heathers, a bitchy trio of preened students who lord their status over their peers like medieval royalty. They are “the lipstick Gestapo,” says Fletcher’s Veronica, who displays endearing, self-deprecating grimaces every time she offends teenage etiquette with a faux pas.
Events take a dip into darker territory with the arrival of new boy JD (Jamie Muscato, played by Christian Slater in the movie), a well-read “Boudelaire-quoting badass” who Veronica falls for in the time it takes him to say something cool. “I didn’t catch your name,” she says. “I didn’t throw it,” he replies.
They make a lovely couple. Particularly when they sing "Seventeen," a stirring hymn to the idea of being a carefree teenager. The other standout duet is delivered after Veronica withdraws from the Heathers’ cruel plan to publicly humiliate her oldest friend. At risk of losing her place in the school hierarchy she seeks solace in virginity-losing sex with JD and one of the very few – possibly only – love songs sung not after or before intercourse, but during.
JD appears to be everything a lovelorn teenage girl could want. As well as being considerate in bed he gives Veronica all the emotional support she needs – or perhaps more than she needs, by killing anyone who makes her cry. And it is here where that bad kernel of an idea begins to leave its mark. How entertaining can it be to watch students casually murdering each other while the grief resulting from the aforementioned real life school shootings must still be raw?
Answer: pretty entertaining. The show had successful runs in Los Angeles and New York, followed by a tryout at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical theatre factory The Other Palace in London before it arrived at its new, illustrious West End home.
The auditorium was partially filled by a whole new generation of teenage Heathers disciples. So middle-aged fans of the film can sit next to fellow devotees a third their age and feel they have something common. And they probably do. For Heathers is a story of teenage anxiety, the torment of growing pains and the fear of being bullied at school, something everyone old enough to buy a theatre ticket can relate to. And it is this empathy for the human condition that gives this at-times dark and disturbing show just enough compassion to prevent it from being an exercise in bad taste. So pitch away.