Best New Musical of 2019, Heathers comes to The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Based on the 1989 cult film, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s new musical, Heathers, tours again. Just as many schools are out for the summer, Heathers opens with Veronica Sawyer’s diary detailing her first day of Senior Year at Westerberg High. Designer David Shields conjures the high school set so many films have brought to life with his brick interior, U.S. flags flying high, school crest and distinctive lockers.

In this cliquey environment, Veronica (Jenna Innes) attempts to remain low on the radar of the school bullies and finds an ingenious way to do so. Gifted at forging notes, she manages to convince the “Heathers”, a group of mean girls who share the same first name (Verity Thompson, Elise Zavou and Billie Bowman), to adopt her into their coveted clan. Turning her back on her best friend Martha (Kingsley Morton) and ignoring her principles are necessary evils to preserve her honorary status as a “Heather”. However, the arrival of new boy JD (Jacob Fowler) threatens the status quo and forces Veronica to make a difficult decision.

Staging a musical tackling suicide, bullying and eating disorders is ambitious alone but one that includes a psychopathic killer on the loose in an educational setting seems likely to offend, especially in the current climate with school shootings in the news once again. That said, the original film was always a dark comedy, has a loyal fanbase and has more recently attracted new attention via TikTok, resulting in a surprisingly high number of much younger audience members.

Murphy and O’Keefe’s script incorporates many well-loved lines, including razor-sharp put downs from The Heathers and preppy jocks of the Daniel Waters’ film. The necessity of incorporating songs to tell Veronica’s story is questionable. Some may find the upbeat vibe inappropriate for such sensitive material, while others may see this as in keeping with the film’s original tone. Very few musical numbers act as earworms but all are superbly performed by the show’s strong cast. “Candy Store” is well choreographed (Gary Lloydz); “Our Love is God” is appropriately creepy in its reprise; “My Dead Gay Son” is both funny and highly inappropriate; “Shine a Light” is an energetic number and “Lifeboat” undoubtedly the most moving. The best duet comes from Innes and Morton in the opening of a welcome reprise of “Seventeen”, Heathers’ one stand-out song.

The show is BSL interpreted and effectively includes slow-motion for a fight between JD and the rather unsavoury Kurt (Alex Woodward) and Ram (Morgan Jackson). Director, Andy Fickman’s best decision, however, is the inclusion of cast members shadowing Veronica in ghostly form to symbolise her guilt. JD teetering on the brink is a good mix of saccharine desperation and seething resentment, manipulating Veronica in their coercive relationship.

Vocals, although powerful are hard to hear at times due to the over-zealous live band, something clearly easily forgiven by an audience who are clambering out of their seats for a premature standing ovation. Flawed but feelgood, this musical version is likely to attract a new generation of fans to its superior source material.

Heathers shows at The Alhambra 18-22 July before continuing its tour of the UK: