Review: Cult teen musical Heathers tries too hard at Edinburgh Playhouse

Date rape, suicide and a high school serial killer might not appear obvious themes for an evening of musical theatre, but then Heathers is possibly the darkest musical comedy ever to grace the stage of The Playhouse.

Rebecca Wickes as Veronica and Maddison Firth, Merryl Ansah and Lizzy Parker as the Heathers in Heathers The Musical at the Edinburgh Playhouse
Rebecca Wickes as Veronica and Maddison Firth, Merryl Ansah and Lizzy Parker as the Heathers in Heathers The Musical at the Edinburgh Playhouse

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Heathers The Musical – Three Stars (out of five)

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Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place

A twisted tale of teenage angst, it's set in Westerburg High School - Home of the Rottweilers – where the three Heathers, that’s Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara, rule the roost with a pout, a point and barbed riposte. As vicious as they are vacuous, these bitchy bullies reign with all the arrogant self-assurance of the truly insecure.

When outsider Veronica Sawyer finds herself accepted into their inner circle (the Heathers find her forging skills useful), it's not long before she finds herself guilt-tripped over betraying her best friend. Peer pressure is a terrible thing.

Then, when the mysterious JD arrives to steal her heart things take a decidedly sinister turn as he sets about eliminating the in-crowd with Veronica’s unwitting help, disguising their murders as suicides.

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Ticking off topics such as bulimia, bullying and despair along the way, there are times, especially during a fairly lacklustre first act, that Heathers, like many of its characters, tries too hard to be cool.

Songs are instantly forgettable, often strained, and performances range from over-the-top to underwhelming. Despite this, the end of each number is greeted with whoops of appreciation from an enthusiastic audience who obviously know something I don't.

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That Heathers started as an off-Broadway musical also comes as little surprise, performed as it is on a fairly static fixed set that relies on Ben Cracknell's pulsating lighting design to bring it to life.

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Thankfully, the second act raises the bar, slightly, and the opening number, My Dead Gay Son, which maybe tells you all you need to know, gets the biggest reaction of the night and lifts the energy of the piece.

Keeping the momentum going throughout, Rebecca Wickes as the conflicted Veronica owns not just the role but the show. Wickes is eminently watchable.

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Playing the three Heathers, Madisson Firth as 'Chandler' creates a monstrous, sashaying harridan that stalks the action throughout.

Merryl Ansah brings an unexpected layer of truth to Heather Duke, coming into her own in Act II, as does Lizzy Parker as Heather McNamara, who proves to have one of the best voices in the company. Her rendition of Lifeboat is a standout moment of the two-hour performance.

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And let’s not forget Simon Gordon as the psychotic Jason 'JD' Dean. Gordon brings a detachment to the killer that, when he chooses, is chilling.

Based on the 1989 teen movie of the same name, which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, it's worth remembering that it took time for that film to become a cult hit, judging by the standing ovation at the end, that cult was certainly in attendance on press night, but it’s hard to warm to a musical with so many unlikable tropes.

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Run ends Saturday, December 11

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