'Heathers' returns as an elevated teen dark comedy with a fresh-faced cast
‘Dear Diary. July 12th, 2021.’ Veronica Sawyer opens Heathers with the phrase "Dear Diary", so it feels fitting to mark the day I battled through the wind and rain to see Heathers in the West End.
The growing domination of cult teen musicals is alive and well as the West End reopens. Be More Chill and Six are playing in their largest West End venues to date. Dear Evan Hansen is set to reopen in the autumn. But for all the shared playground politics in teen musicals, no show takes on adult themes quite like Heathers, back at the Theatre Royal Haymarket this summer. Don’t be fooled by this youthful cast and expect an upbeat show; there’s dark turns aplenty in this sinister musical. But for all its doom and gloom, this is a Heathers that feels closer to being age-accurate, even with its far-fetched storylines.
Based on the 1980s film starring Winona Ryder, Heathers follows Veronica Sawyer, a reserved teen that's thrust into the spotlight when joining the 'Heathers' clique. Her relationships change when she falls in love with J.D., ultimately causing her to have a personal check-in and assess how her life has turned so quickly.
The original West End’s Veronica Sawyer, Carrie Hope Fletcher, left big boots to fill for its newest holder. Now the teenage outcast turned cool girl is played by Christina Bennington, who’s sure to be idolised by a younger demographic. Approaching the role with the dewy-skinned mystery of a 17-year-old, it’s easy to fall for her, laughing along with her as she fast-tracks to being the most popular kid in school.
From the opening number “Beautiful” and beyond, there’s never a sense that Bennington preempts Veronica’s actions, leaving audiences in the palm of this blue-blazered teen. She’s quirky. She’s lovable. She’s everything you’d want from a teen just trying to do good. Fletcher's conniving, calculated approach has been replaced by Bennington's unassuming approach. Both takes work well, but Bennington's reads closer to acting as if an actual high school dispute has spiralled out of control. And even though I saw the 2018 cast, I was still shocked by how Veronica behaves — a sign that Heathers has not only become slicker, thanks to direction by Andy Fickman, but also demonstrates Bennington’s ability to breathe fresh air into an iconic role.
She’s balanced by Jordan Luke Gage, newly cast as the alluring J.D. This chiselled actor has the teenage heartthrob look down to a t, while turning the creepiness up to level 100 in the final scenes. You wouldn’t want to meet this J.D. alone in an alleyway. Duets between Veronica and J.D. capture tender teenage love too; “Dead Girl Walking” has a possessive quality, later polarised by “Seventeen” where it’s almost as if you can see the twinkles in their eyes.
This musical is about the Heathers though, and this new trio of same-named women are definitely queen bees. Jodie Steele reprises her role as Heather Chandler, adding an exaggerated comedic lease of life into her performance, especially in “The Me Inside of Me.” Bobbie Little (as Heather Duke) and Frances Mayli McCann (as Heather Macnamara) complete the trio to rival Mean Girls, sassily stomping all over the audience in their colour-coordinated looks.
For all its bright lights and laughs, it’d be remiss to not acknowledge its questionable approach to discussing adult topics. In a sociopolitical climate that encourages body positivity and loving yourself, is placing characters throwing up to lose weight and pretending to commit suicide glamourising mental health crises? Considering the teenagers that flock to Heathers, does the musical inadvertently teach that it’s okay to make fun of difference? Sure, the movie Heathers was written in the 1980s, when it is still set, and society has progressed considerably since. But Heathers is a contemporary musical, and being too on-the-nose could be triggering to its young fans.
Heathers does have its moments of pure joy though. Olivier winner Lauren Ward steals the show as eccentric teacher Mrs. Fleming in “Shine a Light,” playing to an audience of 250 like it’s 25,000. In “My Dead Gay Son,” Simon Bailey and Steven Serlin take audiences to church in a Leap of Faith-inspired number, where rising up is the key to getting through tough times. Clean, sharp choreography by Gary Lloyd is placed in all the right moments too, feeling organic and not like a Glee flashmob.
Like a lot of teen musicals, its ending is wrapped up very quickly, simplifying struggles into just becoming friends again like nothing’s changed. But few people come to see Heathers for its resolution. They’re there for an evening of film nostalgia and imagining they’re at Westerberg High. This Heathers cast really has made the musical their own, elevating this teenage tragedy into a razor-sharp show. To take a phrase from the Heathers themselves — how very.
Photo credit: Heathers cast (Photo by Pamela Raith)