'Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical' review – this seductive and gleefully nostalgic show is an absolute blast

Read our four-star review of Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical, now in performances at The Other Palace to 14 April.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

In the week that the new Mean Girls movie hits cinemas, another millennial favourite gets the stylish musical treatment. Yes, the 1999 cult-classic movie Cruel Intentions is now a gloriously camp stage hit – and, as the show’s title proclaims, it has brought its oh-so-90s soundtrack along for the ride.

The original film, which transposed Les Liaisons Dangereuses to the Upper East Side and bored prep-school rich kids, featured a who’s-who of young 90s actors: Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon (a couple in real life), Selma Blair and Joshua Jackson, and of course Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy – gone bad! And brunette!).

This stage reincarnation, which has played Off-Broadway and at the Edinburgh Fringe, wisely sticks to the original winning formula. Jordan Ross and Lindsey Rosin make minimal changes to Roger Kumble’s deliciously heightened and endlessly quotable script (one unforgettable erotic promise is emblazoned on a sign in the foyer, where audience members can get their picture taken).

So, once again we follow a pair of sociopathic step-siblings. Kathryn bets Sebastian that he can’t seduce their headmaster’s principled, celibate daughter, Annette; if he wins, he gets to bed Kathryn. A subplot involves Kathryn getting revenge on her former lover by corrupting his innocent new girl, Cecile – via both Sebastian and Cecile’s Black cello teacher, Ronald.

Oddly, some elements are actually ahead of their time, like Kathryn calling out society’s gendered double standards. The guys are hailed as studs if they sleep around, but the girls are slut-shamed: “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex,” she fumes, as she defends her apparently hypocritical “good girl” persona.

Other aspects have dated horribly, like the constant homophobia, blurring of sexual consent, and turning bulimia into a punch-line. But the show mostly gets away with it since this is transparently an exercise in gleeful nostalgia, boosted by its song choices – most of which earn their own cheers of delighted recognition.

It does run into the jukebox musical problem that the songs capture generalised emotion, rather than deepening these specific characters. The most successful needle drops are the knowingly witty ones – and there are plenty of those in Jonathan O’Boyle’s slickly paced production, which features hilarious MTV-era moves from Gary Lloyd.

Kathryn teases Sebastian with “Genie in a Bottle”, and teaches Cecile how to French kiss with “Kiss Me”. Cecile chirrups “The Sign” after experiencing her first orgasm, while Sebastian’s gay bestie Blaine romances his closeted lover with the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. Best of all, Cecile’s racist mother hurls Ronald out of their house with a startling blast of “No Scrubs”.

The emotional moments don’t land quite as well, since the actors must race through the dialogue in order to get to a song (although “Bitter Sweet Symphony” still provides a knockout climax). Nevertheless, Daniel Bravo and Abbie Budden beautifully manage Sebastian and Annette’s growing, yet fragile, tenderness.

Rose Galbraith is a hoot as Cecile, and ensures her gutsy, eccentric character is never just a victim, while Josh Barnett and Barney Wilkinson deepen the gay relationship, and there’s great support from Nickcolia King-N’Da as the put-upon Ronald and Jess Buckby as the uptight Mrs Caldwell.

However, the show belongs to the electrifying star-in-the-making Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky. She somehow splits the difference between the magnificent overacting required here (Kathryn never walks when she can slink, prowl or crawl) and an authentic core of hurt and anger at living in this prejudiced world – made all the more powerful by having a Black actress in the role. She belts out the songs with shattering conviction.

Add in spot-on period costumes from Polly Sullivan, plus a lively band under Denise Crowley, and the guilty-pleasure retread becomes an absolute blast. This school reunion is well worth the trip.

Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical is at The Other Palace through 14 April. Book Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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