Review: Heathers. Nottingham Theatre Royal

Dear Diary, this evening, this reviewer is visiting Nottingham’s Theatre Royal and is looking forward to having a blast at Heathers: The Musical.

The Theatre Royal auditorium is buzzing as 80s tracks play and the audience awaits the arrival of the Heathers. It seems that Heathers: The Musical has amassed somewhat of a cult following since it first opened in 2010, with some of the audience dressing up as a Heather in reverence to the titular characters.

Veronica (Rebecca Wickes) opens the show, standing alone, in spotlight on the impressive Westerberg High set. The set is nostalgic in that it is reminiscent of any American teen flick, but also flexible as, with little interruption to the flow of the production, it becomes bedrooms, a 7/11 and even a cow-pat filled field!

All of the stereotypical groups of teens walk the halls of Westerberg High, from the nerds to the jocks and from the popular to the unpopular; the opening number, “Beautiful”, is a fun and amusing way to introduce the audience to life at this High School and makes great use of slo-mo choreography and freeze frame along with synchronised lighting changes that really emphasise the teen angst on display.

The introduction to the Heathers is blocked to perfection, and the lighting, set design and costume design all work together splendidly to make this a memorable entrance. The gospel-like harmonies and synchronised movements (with cafeteria trays) suggest that these girls are worshiped; they are definitely too cool for school and the Queens of Mean. Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth), Heather Duke (Meryl Ansah) and Heather McNamara (Lizzy Parker) work well as a trio and demonstrate in “Candy Store” just why they own the school.

As the Lead of the “Lipstick Gestapo”, Firth’s Heather Chandler is a force to be reckoned with. Even through the musical numbers where she is clearly giving her all, she manages to keep a nonchalant yet vicious facial expression that is simply disturbing. Never before has this reviewer felt afraid as a character walked towards the front of the stage – not only am I protected by the fourth wall, but also 4 rows of audience members and yet still feel nervous under Firth’s callous gaze! Firth is powerful on the stage and draws the attendance of the audience. Not only does she strike fear into the hearts of audience and cast alike, but she also has fantastic comic ability which comes to the fore in Act 2.

Rebecca Wickes also shines as the preppy and naïve Veronica. Her character arc is huge as she goes from a less popular pupil being mocked by jocks, to school royalty, to a sexual awakening and then disturbingly to sexual harassment and murder. Throughout, the audience is rooting for Veronica and when she sings “I Say No” with such passion and control, it is a real highlight of the show. Wickes is exhausted from the emotional exertion in the song and the audience absolutely love it!

Be warned, this performance is not for the faint hearted; if you are expecting to see a joyful love story and hear pretty ballads, then Heathers may not be your cup of tea. It is intense, topical and shocking. The interval is a welcome break from the anger and stress that builds up by watching toxicity, bullying and just some of the worst traits of humankind. And yet there is comedy throughout; some is dark humour where it feels wrong to laugh, but some is cheesy humour. The funeral at the opening of Act 2 quickly changes into a sparkling disco while Kurt and Ram’s dads (Rory Phelan and Kurt Kansley) sing “My Dead Gay Son” to raucous applause.

One of the more moving parts of the show surrounds one of the more minor characters, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus) who sings movingly from the top of a bridge about her “Kindergarten Boyfriend” after being tricked and mocked. It was great to see her hold the stage after being trodden down by the other characters. It is also wonderful to see Heather McNamara (Lizzy Parker) with a fantastic solo in “Lifeboat” which is raw and expressive in delivery.

One of the main storylines that runs through the production is the “love story” between JD and Veronica – or, more accurately the obsession that is between them – which comes to a sexual conclusion in “Dead Girl Walking” which is excellently choreographed and delivered. However, for this reviewer, the chemistry between the two actors was not always as strong as it could have been given the level of infatuation that leads to the explosive finale. Having said that, JD (Simon Gordon) is awkward and subtly menacing, and newcomers to the Heathers’ phenomenon will unsure exactly what to make of him with his violent tendencies and yet sometimes tenderness and warmth, but overshadowed by a manipulative and lying nature.  

This production is dark and definitely not one for the kids, but it is topical and shows the truth about human frailty, the curse of addiction, the lure of popularity and that power in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Yet, there is hope. One thing is for certain though, this reviewer will not be able to look at red scrunchies for a long time to come.

Heathers The Musical is playing at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal until Saturday 4th September.

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