Wednesday 16 August 2023

Heathers the Musical

 Curve, Leicester

15th August, 2023

Life could be beautiful

You can’t fault producers Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills for what they’ve achieved with Heathers the Musical. Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s 2013 black musical comedy didn’t quite find its feet in the US. This side of the Atlantic the show, which last week announced the closure of its London production, has become a cult hit. Teenagers in the audience dress up as their favourite Heather and throw colourful scrunchies on stage at the curtain call. Based on the 1989 film, you can see why its dark humour and subversiveness appeals to a certain age. But whilst its tone aims to mix nihilism with bubble gum humour, it often strikes an odd chord.

In Heathers, the torments of high school life are emphasised to their extremes. Everyone is defined by a single characteristic or their clique: the sports jocks, the geeks and, predecessors to the Mean Girls, the Heathers, led by ‘mythical biatch’ Heather Chandler (Verity Thompson). Sporting blazers, miniskirts and croquet mallets, each one is assigned their own colour as accentuated in Ben Cracknell’s lighting. Nerdy Veronica Sawyer (Jenna Innes) lands herself a prime lunch spot with the Heathers once they discover her gift for forgery. She is subsequently torn between her distaste for her new friends, her desire to be popular and her increasing attraction to the mysterious new kid, JD (played convincingly with chilling quirk here by Jacob Fowler), that leads to jealousy, spite and eventually murder.

JD has an overprotective streak and father issues which leads him to a killing spree that propels the musical’s plot. School shootings have shockingly become a reoccurring event in America. Whilst there are plays which explore the subject matter more seriously (Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock in 2009, and Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli’s columbinus in 2005), the songs in Heathers help to keep such extremes in the realm of comedy whilst providing some insight into JD’s psychology and motivations. “Freeze Your Brain” explains how 7/11 stores have been his only mainstay in a nomadic upbringing, taking solace in the brain freeze that a Slushie brings: ‘Get lost in the pain/ Happiness comes when everything numbs’. It’s in numbers like this which the score quietly shines. While some of the ensemble numbers are a little hectic, the musical comes into its own in the quieter solo or duet set-pieces. Whether that be the dark humour in Veronica and JD ad-libbing Heather Chandler’s suicide note – ‘My problems were myriad, I was having my period’ – the pleasant simplicity of "Seventeen", or Heather McNamara’s moment of soulbearing in "Lifeboat".

Although the performance we saw was the 200th of the current UK tour, one of the challenges of touring is a new venue each week. It may be that the production is still settling into this week’s Westerburg High but, at this performance, Dan Samson’s sound design didn’t fare too well. Mics were occasionally turned up late and vocals were often drowned out by a fuzzy-sounding band which sounded like they were playing in a different room. What is an enjoyable show would have been more enjoyable had we been able to hear the lyrics a little more clearly.

With the London run closing next month, I’m confident Heathers will continue to find an audience. It’s a fun musical which doesn’t take its acerbic undercurrents too seriously and quite clearly speaks to a new generation of theatregoers which, ultimately, is something to celebrate.

Heathers the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th August and continues to tour until 4th November. The London production is currently playing at The Other Palace until 3rd September. For more information, please visit

Jenna Innes and Jacob Fowler in Heather the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

Friday 4 August 2023

A Little Life

Savoy, London

29th July 2023, matinee


‘How hard it is to keep alive

someone who doesn't want to stay alive’


Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling and immensely popular 2015 novel A Little Life is not without its controversies. Having been accused of touting ‘torture porn’ amongst other criticisms, Yanagihara’s story is not for the faint-hearted, but is in reality, so much more than the sensationalist headlines suggest. It seems fitting that such a divisive novel has been adapted for the stage by one of theatre’s most divisive directors, Ivo van Hove. The director harnesses his signature style of heightened realism combined with some very striking imagery to create a vivid production that is (in some cases literally) an assault on the senses.

The plot focuses on four college friends as they navigate the ups and downs of life in New York City. Malcolm comes from a privileged but distant family and aspires to be a master architect, JB is a bolshy but talented painter, and Willem is a passionate, kind-hearted struggling actor. At the centre of the group lies the enigmatic Jude: a sweet natured and quiet man whose traumatic childhood haunts his adult life. Through the relationship between these friends and the other important people that come into and out of their lives, the play explores a spectrum of emotional intensity and poses the question ‘what is a life worth?’.

As a lover of the book I could mourn the loss of certain characters (Harold’s wife Julia being perhaps the most sorely missed) or rue the way certain storylines have been side-lined (Malcolm and JB are more secondary here), however van Hove, Koen Tachelet and Yanagihara have done a great job of retaining and, in some ways, enhancing the essence of the book without having to sacrifice too much of the detail. Even while clocking in at a whopping 4 hours, the creative team have condensed the 700+ page tome into a play that feels streamlined yet also has a wonderful way of allowing individual moments to breathe. This is particularly evident in van Hove’s use of music; whether it be the live string quartet that empathetically underscore the action, Jude’s quietly reflective classical singing, or the devastating moment of uninhibited joy in which Jude and Willem dance to Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’.

Van Hove similarly builds an authentic relationship with the audience by peppering the stage with ‘real-life’ action. Before the play begins characters congregate on stage to cook bacon and eggs, the aroma filling the auditorium, and throughout the performance background goings-on include characters cooking appetisers and elaborate puddings, painting, reading and cleaning. This domestic realism helps us to invest in the action and makes the painful aspects of the story even more shocking. The violence on show is horrific and deeply upsetting, and that’s before even considering the gory nature of the special effects used (we had a least 2 fainters and one show-stop at the performance we attended).

While it’s easy to focus on the physical and psychological trauma on display – yes, there are gruelling scenes of sexual assault, sadism and self-harm – it’s also important to note that through the course of the evening we are also privy to the most intimate facets of the characters’ inner emotional selves; we share their happiness, grief, anger and guilt, in all their enriching and contradictory complexities. I would argue that above all, A Little Life is a story about love – platonic love, parental love, romantic love, self-love – whether it be pure, muddied or elusive, and that is what makes the novel, and now the play, so enduringly touching.

The cast bring to life Yanagihara’s characters with ease and cultivate a company-wide chemistry that is unmatched by any other show in the West End at present. Luke Thompson is instantly likeable as the affable Willem and Omari Douglas’s JB hits just the right balance between passion and petulance. The always impressive Zubin Varla gives a gravity laden and soulful performance as Jude’s adoptive father, Harold, and carries the weight of the final moments of the play with tremendous feeling, while Elliot Cowan’s portrayal of the monsters lurking in Jude’s past is every bit as chilling and hateful as you could hope for. Yet, for many James Norton’s tireless performance is the real highlight. Never off-stage, Norton plumbs the depths of every raw emotion, every animalistic instinct known to man, yet he imbues Jude with a beautiful air of gentle dignity, even during his lowest moments. I defy anyone to watch Norton in action here and remain unmoved, not least for the sheer dedication he shows to the role.

Jan Versweyveld’s set is almost a character in its own right.  Deceptively economic yet immersive, hospital beds emerge from the wells, a fully working kitchen acts as a hub for the action, and Versweyveld’s video projections provide a fascinating insight into Jude’s psyche. Playing constantly throughout the performance, seamless video tours through the streets of NYC subtly speed up, slow down, lose and gain colour, and crackle with static depending on the Jude’s state of mind. While it could be argued that van Hove can perhaps be over-reliant on video in his previous ventures, I felt that here it is entirely justified without ever becoming a distraction.

When this production was first announced I had my doubts about whether an adaptation would be able to do justice to Yanagihara’s extraordinary novel. However, these doubts have been completely quashed after seeing the show. I laughed, I raged, I winced, I cried (and cried, and cried) and I am still thinking about what I watched nearly a week later. A lot of care and attention has been poured into this production and it deserves every success that comes its way.


A Little Life plays at the Savoy Theatre until 5th August, followed by a nation-wide cinema screening on 28th September 2023.

For more information please visit: 

Zach Wyatt, Luke Thompson and James Norton
in A Little Life. 
Credit: Jan Versweyveld