Homecoming is the word that comes to mind when watching this musical. A simplified version of the 1989 cult classic, Heathers at The Other Palace is an example of how musical theatre does not necessarily need to rely on flashy sets and tech. Despite the rock and roll vibe of the songs, overall, there just felt like there was something missing. Not because it wasn’t a particularly ‘big’ production like those on the West End; it just felt underwhelming.
Despite the issues with the sound, the cast did spectacularly
Veronica Sawyer (Ailsa Davidson) guided us through events via entries in her diary. Trading her childhood friend, Martha (Lizzie Bea), for popularity and friendship with the Heathers (Maddison Firth, Inez Budd and Teleri Hughes) – the mean girls of Westerburg High – Veronica is soon ensnared in the complex power dynamics and social norms that rule high school. When falling for the mysterious J.D. (Simon Gordon), leads her to (accidentally) murder three of her classmates, Veronica is forced to face up to the true nature of school, society, and her own teen angst, which now has a body count.
The main issue with this musical had nothing to do with the cast, who made a relatively small stage seem big. It was the sound and balance between the band and the actors onstage that effected the overall quality of the performance. First of all, the sound coming from the band overpowered whatever was being said or sung onstage. This was not particularly difficult to do since the actors’ mics were often not switched on in time, and so the beginning of what they were saying, or singing was lost and we were dropped in the middle of the sentence with no knowledge of the start. There was often feedback heard from the speakers on either side of the stage, but allowances can be made for faulty equipment as that is beyond the control of the band and company. But not to the extent that the band verges on defeaning the audience every time they start playing, which made the silences between and in songs all the more pleasant. Whether it was the quality of the tech or simply an off-night, musical theatre should not be a battle of wills between the cast and band to be heard, and in the future the band should consider turning down their monitors so as to not burst our eardrums.
Despite the issues with the sound, the cast did spectacularly. The show must go on, but due to the reliance on the sound equipment working properly, it can be difficult when it does not. Davidson in particular stood out, not only because she was the front and centre of the show, but in a way she appeared determined to be heard regardless of the sound issues, and at times it did seem like she could fill the theatre through the sheer power of her voice, with or without a working mic. Davidson had a great belt and managed to sing all of her songs incredibly well, despite their challenging nature. Her American accent was consistent and geographically accurate, despite the occasional drop it made into Canadian. Even though Veronica’s dry humour and snark managed to push through at times, the over-emphasis on her dorkiness and awkwardness made the character seem pantomime-like, as if at any point she’d tell J.D., “Oh no you’re not going to murder any more of my classmates.” This characterisation was also unfortunately to the detriment of Veronica’s more classic lines (“Lick it up, baby. Lick it up”) that ended up sounding forced, out of place and cringeworthy. This was not at the expense of some of the softer parts of Veronica’s character, which Davidson should be commended on. The chemistry between Davidson and Gordon sold the cutesy to murderous relationship arc between Veronica and J.D., and their interactions were enjoyable to watch. Together they made up the strongest pair to grace The Other Palace stage. Reprising his role of J.D. from the Heathers UK tour and looming ominously in his black trench coat which stood out against his very brightly coloured castmates, Gordon was a very strong performer in his own right, with his rendition of Freeze Your Brain being one of the show’s highlights. His slow descent into madness as the veneer was peeled away would have put Christian Slater to shame. Gordon’s humanisation of J.D. as a victim of circumstance was an interesting interpretation and created a parallel between J.D.’s ‘morally justified’ actions and those of his and Veronica’s victims. Gordon’s acting lends substantial weight to the argument that monsters are made and not born, which turned J.D. into a surprisingly tragic figure. An actor to watch out for.
It wouldn’t be Heathers without mentioning the Heathers. Firth played Heather Chandler, as iconic as characters come. Firth gave it her all and reached the climax of her performance very early on in the show, which meant that volume and acting-wise she had very little room to expand. Her intonation and emphasis on certain words were odd, which ended up sounding clumsy. Her overall performance brought Heather Chandler to life, especially her appearances as a vengeful ghost / figment of Veronica’s consciousness, which were amusing to watch, and her performance of Candy Store was nothing short of brilliant. Budd should be commended for her performance as Heather Duke, and especially for her rendition of Never Shut Up Again, which was high-energy, seamless, and impressive to watch. Hughes was a perfect McNamara, and really shined during her solo, Lifeboat, evoking a strong sense of pathos for the character and creating a much-needed softer moment in a musical filled with angst.
The change to You’re Welcome from Blue is hopefully a response to the political and social situation, as that could be the only reasoning as to why this musical contains such a weak song. If there was one thing that Heathers wasn’t missing, it was a pseudo-rap where the threat comes from the beat more than anything else. If the aim was to start or contribute to the conversation about sexual assault, then this song missed the mark. Whilst the threat from Ram (Tom Scanlon) and Kurt (George Maddison) was obvious from the song’s context, the duo never fully made the transition from stupid frat boys to predators as the show did not do anything to set them up as such. Whilst the situation that Veronica found herself in of being left alone with two men that were intent on assaulting her would make any woman turn cold (as I did), the scene was underwritten with humour, at least that’s what the acting itself indicated. Making Ram and Kurt fall into cow manure at the end of the song undermined any threatening atmosphere or tension that had been built up beforehand, a sin Heathers repeated often. It is as if the creative team couldn’t figure out how to balance the darker and lighter aspects of the source material.
The Other Palace’s stage and its proximity to the audience made the action in Heathers more immediate – you see Veronica hiding a gun behind her back. The immediacy and the relatively simple set added to the musical’s charm and overall effect. However, some scenes seemed rushed, which contributed to a feeling of disjointedness. As mentioned before, any tension built up in certain moments was dissipated with a comedic one-liner, and this also happened during softer moments filled with vulnerability. The jokes worked well when the moment called for it, but Heathers is also a very dark story, and the musical did not honour that.
Heathers is a fine musical; it was watchable and had many good moments. However, there were significant issues, which when fixed, could make this musical great.