Peer pressure, bullying, school violence, suicide and murder... not exactly topics you'd expect to be high on your shopping list if you were picking ingredients for an uplifting musical!
But Heathers, the high-energy show that arrived at Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Tuesday), tackled its dark subject matter head on and the rousing ovation at the end of the performance told its own story as the audience was won over by the excellent cast.
The musical, on its first-ever UK and Ireland tour, is based on the 1988 film of the same name, which I've never seen, and which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.
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Set at Westerberg High, the Ohio school is ruled by "the Heathers" - namely Heather McNamara (Lizzy Parker), Heather Duke (Merryl Ansah) and Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth) - who all display various degrees of bitchiness throughout.
Veronica Sawyer dreams of being popular and so joins the cruel Heathers' clan and before long those dreams come true. But when mysterious teen rebel JD arrives on the scene things take a dark twist and her newly forged 'fake' friendships don't last for long.
One particularly enjoyable part of the show were the frequent freeze-frame moments where Victoria (played by the impressive Rebecca Wickes) offered explanations/thoughts on action that had just transpired, and would also interact entertainingly with the motionless cast. She also had a touch of the Sybil Fawltys about her with some of her cackling that was rather over-the-top but lapped up by the audience nevertheless.
After falling out with the Heathers, Victoria becomes romantically involved with JD who subtly encourages her to take revenge on those who have crossed her. But she slowly starts to realise that she needs to break free from his control despite her obvious attraction to him.
Simon Gordon as JD was one of the standout performers, portraying an extremely complex and disturbed character who left you wondering what his next move might be.
Liam Doyle as Kurt Kelly and Rory Phelan as Ram Sweeney deserve a special mention too for their thick-as-thieves double act of hormonal dim teenagers who are easily led astray. One undressing scene in a cemetery was particularly hilarious. And keep a look out for the mercilessly bullied Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus) wheeling on to stage near the end for another moment which had the audience in fits of laughter.
Heathers certainly has its fair share of dark comedy. There were some fantastic lines, such as when one of the Heathers was bemoaning having a bumpy journey to school and uttered "I'm on the bus again, all my rides to school are dead".
As for the music itself, Heathers' songs may not be as well known as those in other musicals, but they are performed with great gusto and help drive the story along, with plenty of the cast getting the chance to take centre stage with vocals. If I had one small criticism, it would be how it was quite hard at times to pick out the lyrics - but is it just me or is that the case with most music you hear these days!?
With tension simmering throughout the show, watch out for the explosive ending... but who will survive and end up with a more positive outlook on life?
I certainly enjoyed Heathers, but my daughter (herself a high school student who could obviously relate to much of the subject matter) was utterly raving about it as she left the auditorium and couldn't wait to tell her friends all about it the next day.
Heathers runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday (November 20). For tickets call 0844 871 7615 or go to atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes