In this production, Footlights has gone for simplicity, a move I find bold and rewarding. We are greeted by a plain set - one long, low wall across the stage, with a low rostra in front. It compliments the vastness of the Whitireia theatre, and for the first time I have been in here I don’t feel like the audience (which I’d guess is close to a full house) overwhelms the performance space. The array of eighties film posters adorning the wall bring in a degree of fun and colour; being cheeky and obvious in the best of ways. It also plays host to a number of visual gags that stand out for me as some of the strongest theatrical moments of the show. At these points the comedic potential in the chorus work really flies, not to mention managing to tap into the unfound hilarity of pineapple lumps.
Heathers picks up as it begins to indulge itself in its own silliness - of which there is plenty. The score is light, fun, but somewhat forgettable, though that lies with Laurence O’Keefe as opposed to musical director Katie Morton and the band. Where the music really hits its stride is in its dry, witty lyrics, letting loose excellent one-liners that provide unexpected laughs. The music is however undeniably fun, and I long to see the band anywhere but hidden behind the curtains as they were for the duration of the show.
When everyone onstage commits to the comedy, we have moments of gold. The choreography (which I must assume to credit to director/assistant director Karen Anslow and Mike Byrant as no choreographer is credited) is simple but works well to play up the humour that can be found in the classic array of American high school stereotypes. Watching the Heathers’ strut in V formation, silhouetted by lunch trays, is so satisfying because it both plays on what we know and expect from these characters whilst also being simultaneously self-aware of their own ridiculousness. Ed Blunden in his role of Ram Sweeney is a stand-out, and I was impressed at his ability to play up the physical comedy of ‘jock-lad’ Ram; whilst maintaining a core seriousness and sincerity that made him believable. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that committing to play a character like Ram requires a degree of bravery. There are aspects of Ram’s character that make me me squirm, which leads into some of the stickier aspects of Heathers. According to Anslow’s directors note, the troupe were actually unsure as to whether they wanted to perform the text in the first place. It was both reassuring and disconcerting to realise my own conflict was reflected within the team itself - though I'm interested in an answer as to why they ultimately chose the play.
Heathers starts out as a familiar musical comedy, but then things take a darker turn as we delve into themes of suicide and sexual assault. I won’t deny I felt a little hot around the collar at some points - a song and dance number about two would-be-rapists’ ‘blue balls’ pushed me into the territory of detachment, as the number felt oddly sympathetic to the potential perpetrators. It’s uncomfortable being asked to laugh at ‘boys being boys’ in this context, and whilst the fault here lies with the book, it seems so out of step with how this kind of material is usually presented. It’s some nail-biting territory, and raises some very interesting questions about how we do talk about such sensitive topics. Judging by the laughter from the audience, my feelings were not shared by everyone. There are other similar moments in Heathers that left me feeling confused as to whether the intention was satirical; or merely an awkward, loitering hang-over of the values from a time gone by. Let it be noted however, that Footlights do an excellent job in creating as safe a space as possible, providing content warnings before the show starts and having contacts from youthline present both at the end of the show and during the interval.
Talking about very real issues like bullying, teen suicide and sexual assault within the unreal confines of a high-school comedy is definitely jarring, but makes these issues seem all the more grotesque. In between the laughs and the raised eyebrows, the cast manage to find moments that bring a real tear to the eye. Notably there was Charlotte Thomas’ performance of Lifeboat, the moment where we see the most insight into feelings of suicidality. The moment was brief and intimate, expressing the sense of suffocation and powerlessness that can lead to suicide. The song was a welcomed tug back to reality after the heightened shenanigans that make up a majority of the plot. Thomas performed the song with a low-key honesty that turned Heather McNamara into one of the most believable characters of the show. Another such moment was Ellie Stewart’s performance of Kindergarten Boyfriend, which, whilst completely different in tone to Lifeboat, presented a view of suicidality that is equally as poignant though perhaps less discussed. Stewart’s eternally optimistic performance is they key to making the song hit you in all the right places - a number perfectly encapsulating the humour that makes Heathers excellent along with a genuine, almost terrifying sadness.
I’m left wanting more of these moments, as these are the points where I understand why this show has been staged. Undoubtedly, it’s an enjoyable work, and provides the performers with a broad emotional spectrum to tap into and play with - a task they achieve admirably. The show reaches elastic high and lows, with an enjoyable audaciousness at one end of the spectrum, and an awkward, thorny tension at the other. I’m stuck wondering whether the fun, energy and sass can really justify presenting dusty attitudes that were better left in the eighties.