I could tell Heathers is a cult classic from the minute I walked through the doors of the Palace Theatre. Walking down the aisles were girls wearing the iconic primary colours school uniforms, excitedly awaiting the show to begin.
I came with no expectations, if anything I just knew to expect the unexpected, and still that didn’t prepare me – my jaw dropped open on multiple occasions, I laughed a lot, and I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat pretty much constantly since.
I’m glad the soundtrack is available on Spotify, however, as the first act was plagued by poor audio mixing. Every time a song reached its crescendo, and the band got louder, the singing was drowned out. I found myself straining to hear the words and some of the jokes were missed amidst the music. The sound quality was frustrating, I could see people all around me leaning to comment on it after each song – nonetheless, they were still clapping loudly as the choreography and stage presence was still exceptional. Thankfully the mixing was fixed by the second act (so I’m sure it will be fine for the rest of the show’s run)!
Heathers felt like a full West End show, brought to the Manchester stage. The set was breathtaking, the props were genius, and there were no weak links in the 19-strong ensemble.
As the show began I was expecting Mean Girls set in 1989. The stage was set in a high school, complete with lockers, cheerleaders, and the hippy teacher. The kids were quickly separated into nerds and populars, and the characters were introduced with Veronica’s (Jenna Innes) ‘voiceover’ as they freeze-framed. There was a makeover, a party complete with beer kegs, and a crush on the new boy. I’d settled in for a fun teen comedy, where ‘social suicide’ was the worst thing that could happen.
Spoilers ahead, and trigger warning: The next section of this review discusses murder, suicide, sexual assault and eating disorders, as the show heavily references these topics.
The Heathers (Heather Chandler, Heather Duke, and Heather McNamara) are the queen bees, and they take Veronica Sawyer under their wing. Veronica falls for new boy JD (Jacob Fowler), who turns out to be crazy and murders everyone who is mean to her (Heather Chandler, and two football stars Kurt Kelley and Ram Sweeney) to make the school nice again. They cover up their murders with fake suicide notes, but soon the hierarchy returns with Heather Duke stepping in to take Heather Chandler’s place with the incredible on-stage outfit change during ‘Never Shut Up Again’.
Heathers is a brilliant show because it simultaneously captures so many aspects of the high school experience, navigating friendships, parents, getting drunk for the first time, and having sex for the first time, which is both empowering but sort of messy (‘I’m hot and pissed and on the pill’), and mental health … whilst also being the furthest thing from normal – there are three murders in the first act!
The set of the UK Tour of Heathers can only be described as breathtaking. Usually, when coming from the West End to a National Tour, the production value and set design of a production will be lessened for ease of set striking and transportation. However, the set is almost exactly the same as the West End and Broadway productions, and it is through this consistent set design that the production does not lose any value when compared to that of a residency show.
The main cast were all incredible performers. Heather Chandler, played by Verity Thompson, was a particular highlight, coming into her own even more after her death, with her physical comedy throughout ‘The Me Inside Of Me’. She masked the character development demanded by the role greatly, bringing comedic value, yet the bitchiness required to pull of such an eccentric figure.
Heather Duke, played by Elise Zavou, was slightly weaker in her ‘Never Shut Up Again’ dance, looking quite stiff on stage. But it could be seen as her slightly uncomfortable in her new role as leader of the popular crowd, so she got away with it! She also only has a few years experience on the stage, graduating in 2021 so it was still a very impressive performance.
Jacob Fowler showed JD’s shift from a mysterious teenager to murderer effectively, portraying the darkness within. His slow-motion fight with Ram (Morgan Jackson) and Kurt (Alex Woodward) during ‘Fight For Me’ was funny and the lighting used to show Veronica developing a crush was very effective. But he was also a terrifying character, and the frame to end Act One was genuinely chilling.
Beyond the main cast, there were more stand-out performances amongst the ‘adults’. ‘My Dead Gay Son’ was an incredible Act Two opener, we were simultaneously shocked and delighted, it was a joyous and funny song – perfectly capturing Heathers’ clever use of dark humour, and costume changes, as their funeral ties became rainbows.
Ms Fleming’s (Katie Paine) ‘Shine a Light’ used light up books to create a beautiful performance. The props throughout the show were worthy of the West End – making Heathers in Manchester a true depiction of it’s original run. ‘Shine a Light’ used the perfect level of audience engagement, I am usually not a fan, but singling out ‘Steve’ in the front row and breaking up with him was brilliant.
The fourth wall was broken a few times throughout the show to great effect when Veronica gave a horrified side eye to the audience as JD revealed his mother was dead.
The show is also political too, there’s a depressing universality to some aspects of the female experience – ‘What was that move from my self-defence class?’. Heathers could be criticised for making light of issues like sexual assault and suicide, with the pills coming out of Heather McNamara’s mouth in a perfect stream. But watching the show in an age post Thirteen Reasons Why when suicide has, in many ways, been glamorised on screen, Heathers commented on the dangers of that.
The themes and songs continued through the show with clever reprises and repeated lines. ‘Shine, shine, shine’ became ‘whine, whine, whine’. Ram and Kurt singing ‘Big Fun’ when describing what they’d ‘done’ with Veronica gave the song a dark undertone. The repetition of ‘Our Love is God’ highlighted the lyrics in a new, terrifying light. And finishing the show with a reprise of ‘Seventeen’, meant Heathers culminated on a positive and optimistic note (and you couldn’t help singing the song on your way out!).
If you’re in the mood for John Tucker Must Die but dark, get yourself to Palace Theatre by August 12 2023.