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'But I'm A Cheerleader' review — a campy musical caught in a tricky pubescent period

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

“Is this even legal?” say the True Directions kids as they prepare for a simulated sex exam, the final step in their questionable conversion therapy. The teens are days away from graduating from True Directions, a summer camp which aims to help teenagers find their “true” heterosexual gender roles.

While conversion therapy may seem like a wild concept, the act of “turning people straight” is still legal in many countries. So it’s important to bring sociopolitical conversations surrounding conversion therapy into the forefront of society to get people talking. The But I’m A Cheerleader musical delves into the abhorrency of conversion therapy in musical form. However, the musical’s over-reliance on dick jokes and silly subplots makes the show into a juvenile attempt at a serious topic.

Based on the 1999 film of the same name, But I’m A Cheerleader follows Megan, a high school cheerleader who is shipped off to a rehabilitation camp in the hopes of curing her lesbian tendencies (Victoria’s Secret catalogues and a penchant for tofu). So begins a summer of forced therapy and gender education in the hopes of putting Megan on the straight and narrow.

It’s sadly fitting then that a new musical featuring characters that are confused about their sexuality also has a confused story. The 80-minute film is now a two-and-a-half-hour musical, and as such the film’s original heart suffers with additional, irrelevant scenes — new scenes between Megan's friends, Kim and Jared at high school, and "ex ex-gays" Lloyd and Larry put a pause on the real action.

However, the But I’m A Cheerleader cast shines through the lacklustre material. Alice Croft gives Megan an authentic, endearing quality, similar to Rachel Bloom's Rebecca Bunch in My Crazy Ex Girlfriend. Evie Rose Lane portrays a grungy, sexually-frustrated Graham, especially in her show-stopping Act One solo, and Tiffany Graves displays a psychotic characterisation of True Directions leader, Mary Brown. Jodie Steele provides all the laughs too, multi-roling as the deadpan cheerleader Kimberly, and the gangly True Direction campmate, Hilary.

Bill Augustin and Andrew Abrams’s original score sprinkles all the right levels of preppiness and humour throughout the show. In particular, Lemuel Knights (as Mike) leads a gospel number with enough hail Marys to get everyone in the audience clapping along. But in general, the exhausted songs blend into one another, and the vast majority of songs could be cut by at least three minutes.

I won’t reveal the new endings to the But I’m A Cheerleader story either, but the True Directions graduation is no longer about the kids. It’s more akin to an Eastenders “You ain’t my mother” scenario that just feels cheap and rushed.

Creatively, this show lacks the vivacity needed for a campy, cheerleader musical. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s limited, repetitive choreography is danced too small, and Pippa Batt’s costume design needs a further injection of colour blocking craziness. Sit too close to the front and you’ll get an eyeful from ill-fitting shorts too.

Even though But I’m A Cheerleader opened at the Turbine Theatre last month, the musical is already finding its tribe. A girl in front of me sang along throughout the show, and the slush-puppy drinking, Instagram-snapping teens all around me told their friends to see the show too. But at the moment, But I’m A Cheerleader is in its tricky pubescent period. There’s a nugget of musical theatre gold at its core, it just needs to mature and hit adulthood to finally blossom.

But I'm A Cheerleader is at the Turbine Theatre to 16 April. Book But I'm A Cheerleader tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Alice Croft and Evie Rose Lane (Photo by Mark Senior)

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