Review: Heathers at New Wimbledon Theatre

Like the 1989 movie on which it’s based, Heathers the Musical has gained an enthusiastic cult following since the UK production first opened at The Other Palace in 2018. And while that enthusiasm sometimes feels borderline inappropriate – whooping and cheering while a lonely, bullied teenage girl seemingly acts on the suicidal intentions she’s just been singing about is one uncomfortable example – it’s certainly not unjustified. Heathers is a great show, taking all the best bits of the movie and adding catchy musical numbers that quickly take up residence in your head, whether you want them to or not.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Probably best summarised as Mean Girls with murder, Heathers takes aim at the savagery of high school life through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Veronica (Rebecca Wickes), whose only goal is to make it to college in one piece. When she finds herself unexpectedly adopted by the Heathers (Maddison Firth, Merryl Ansah and Lizzy Parker), the three most popular and feared girls in school, everything seems to be falling into place. That is until she meets newcomer J.D. (Simon Gordon), who has no patience for bullies, and no hesitation about fighting back. Soon he and Veronica – much to her horror – are racking up quite the body count, covering their tracks by making each death look like a suicide.

Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s show fearlessly tackles such dark subjects as suicide, bullying, date rape, murder and homophobia, but does so with the same deft comedic touch as the movie, ultimately concluding with an upbeat (albeit slightly consequence-free) message about acceptance and friendship. As troubling as it probably should be, it’s impossible not to be swept along by the sheer exuberance of it all, particularly in the hands of such a great cast. The vocals are, without exception, spectacular, particularly from leads Rebecca Wickes and Simon Gordon, and there’s some brilliant comedy performances from Maddison Firth, Liam Doyle and Rory Phelan – even, and perhaps even more so, after their characters have been bumped off. Meanwhile the emotional heart of the show lies with Mhairi Angus as Veronica’s best friend Martha, a sweet girl who becomes the target of bullying and practical jokes but never stops being true to who she is.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Though there’s a slight change of pace in Act 2 (following a riotous opening number), the energy of Andy Fickman’s production remains high throughout, with excellent choreography by Gary Lloyd, dramatic lighting design from Ben Cracknell, and a very neat quick costume change towards the end of Act 1 which deserves its own special mention. All in all, Heathers is a super slick show that knows its target audience and, if the volume of the screams at curtain call are anything to go by, gives them exactly what they want.

Heathers is at New Wimbledon Theatre until 6th November before continuing on tour.

Review: Within These Four Walls at Questors Theatre

Between April 2020 and February 2021, 13,162 people contacted the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, an increase of 5,000 from previous years. This statistic appears in the programme of Vanessa Cruickshank’s tense and challenging drama Within These Four Walls, performed at Questors Theatre this weekend for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and brings home the shocking scale of a problem that’s become significantly more widespread since the Covid pandemic began. This rollercoaster of a story takes the audience on an unsettling journey, ending with an emotional revelation that makes you completely question and re-evaluate everything you’ve just watched.

Act 1 of the play tells a horrifying but relatively textbook story of domestic abuse, which draws on Cruickshank’s professional experience with domestic violence and makes sure to demonstrate all the warning signs we should be looking out for in the real world. Karen (Vanessa Cruickshank) meets Jonathan (Kurtis Lowe) at work and falls instantly for his charms, despite the warnings of their colleague Sarah (Helena Huang) that he’s trouble. Soon the two have moved in together, and not long after that, he starts controlling what she wears and who she sees, repeatedly undermining her confidence, and finally escalating to physical violence. Eventually Karen makes the courageous decision to leave, but a final confrontation between the two ends in tragedy.

This is where things begin to get interesting, from a theatrical point of view. For a while in Act 2, the narrative appears to have got a bit jumbled, with some confused double casting and what seem to be glaring factual inaccuracies in the presentation of the legal process that follows Act 1’s deadly conclusion. That is until the closing moments, when the truth is revealed and suddenly everything slots into place. The reason this is so interesting is because at that moment, it’s difficult to remember how much of what we thought was happening is because we were led in that direction by the script, and how much was purely our own assumption – and if it’s the latter, what does that say about the way society views women and, more specifically, violence against women, and even more specifically than that, violence against women of colour?

As Karen, writer Vanessa Cruickshank is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. Just like her friend Sarah, we find ourselves desperate for her to escape from her abusive partner, but at the same time we come to understand enough about Karen as a person to fully understand why she stays. Kurtis Lowe makes a convincing villain, with the audience audibly shocked on more than one occasion by the viciousness of his words and behaviour, and Helena Huang and Aniya Sek Kanu provide differing outsider views of the situation as colleagues Sarah and Kitty. The other two characters – Karen’s mum Natasha (Peaches) and coroner Penelope Fraser (Elizabeth Shaw) – are well performed, but could be developed further so they become more than just vehicles for key facts in Act 2.

Director Atticus Orsborn sets all the action in Karen and Jonny’s living room, a stark white set onto which the characters’ emotions are projected through the highly effective use of dramatic lighting. By not moving away from this domestic setting even in Act 2, we’re reminded that what should be a safe space can so often be anything but – and that what happens afterwards can often be just as traumatic.

It’s the mark of a good play when you find yourself thinking about it all the way home, and beyond – and Within These Four Walls certainly does that. There are parts of Act 2 that could be tightened up, but on the whole, this is an important and well thought out play that will enrage and educate in equal measure. Ultimately, its goal is a clear and noble one: to send its audience away with a knowledge and understanding of what domestic violence is and what it looks like, so that we feel empowered to get involved when we’re needed and not look away from someone who might be silently crying out for help.

Within These Four Walls has its final performance this evening at Questors Theatre. A portion of the profits from the show will be going to Refuge. For more details, visit the show’s Facebook page.

Quick Q&A: Sophie

Where and when: The Hope Theatre, London, 12-14th October; The Dukes Lancaster, 15th October; Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield, 20th October; Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, 28th October

What it’s all about… “Thanks for joining us tonight for Sophie’s birthday. I can’t believe my big sister is 30! Where have all the years gone?”

Sophie is my older sister and she has Down syndrome, but that has never stopped us dancing to 90s girl hits, snogging boys and causing mischief when we were growing up in Hull.

Come and join us on my autobiographical one-woman show, where I travel through the years, navigating my way through womanhood and sisterhood, with a sibling who has additional complex needs.

The play is a celebration of what life can be like with someone like Sophie in it!

You’ll like it if… You enjoy real life inspiring stories that are coming of age, love the 00’s and girl power hits; you’re interested in female relationships, sisterhood and womanhood; you’re passionate about equality and accessibility for people with learning disabilities. 

The production uses digital techniques, dance and physical story telling. 

You should see it because… The play is a unique story about two sisters who have a very special relationship and have faced challenges and opinions that many won’t ever have to. Their unique bond is heart-warming, inspiring and full of hope. You will laugh until your belly hurts and have a lump in your throat while the play takes you on their incredible journey spanning over 30 years. 

Anything else we should know…: Hiding Place Theatre commissions artists with inspiring and untold stories. Sophie by Emily Curtis was first commissioned in 2019 in its early stages of development. After a couple of cancelled tours – due to you know what – we are delighted to be sharing this unique and heart-warming story.

CAST & CREATIVE TEAM

Written and performed by Emily Curtis
Produced by Hiding Place Theatre
Director & Dramaturg- Chantell Walker
Producer- Jamie Walsh
Stage Manager- Alice Winter
Assistant Director- Sophie Potter

Where to follow:
Twitter: @HidingPlaceTC
Instagram: @hidingplacetheatre

Website: www.hidingplacetheatre.com 

Book here: https://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/sophie/ (Hope Theatre); https://dukeslancaster.org/whats-on/theatre/sophie (The Dukes); https://thelbt.org/what-s-on/drama/sophie/ (Lawrence Batley Theatre); https://watersidearts.org/whats-on/2902-sophie/ (Waterside Arts)

Got a show opening soon? Visit Promote your show and tell us more!

Review: Going the Distance (online)

Over the course of the Covid pandemic, the Lawrence Batley Theatre has become known for its innovative digital productions, among them What a Carve Up! and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Their latest offering, a co-production with Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes and The Watermill Theatre, is Going The Distance, a charming and poignant comedy about a small local theatre group struggling to survive when their doors are forced to close.

Photo credit: Dennis Madden & James Rees

Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan and directed by Felicity Montagu in a style reminiscent of TV comedies like W1A, Going The Distance features a wry voiceover from narrator Stephen Fry, narrating on what can best be described as a bunch of misfits who have to find a way to work together to save the thing they all love – their theatre. Led by director Frank (Matthew Kelly), self-appointed Head of Marketing (and various other things) Rae (Sarah Hadland) and treasurer Maggie (Penny Ryder), the group decide to put on a production of Wizard – a new story written by Frank’s ex-wife Vic (Shobna Gulati) and inspired by, but for rights purposes definitely not, The Wizard of Oz.

So begins a bumpy road towards opening night, where everything seems set against them – complicated romantic entanglements, a depressing dearth of local talent, and budget constraints that are largely the result of local diva Billie (Nicole Evans) wildly overspending on a Glinda dress. And yet somehow they keep going, and one by one it becomes clear how much the theatre means to them – for newcomer Gail (Emma McDonald) it’s a chance to make something of herself; for Vic it’s an outlet for her grief and insecurity following the breakdown of her marriage; and for Maggie, it’s been part of her life for decades and is now pretty much all she has. Even Rae and Billie, on the surface the two most obnoxious characters, allow their masks to slip briefly so the audience can understand that for all their bluster, they care just as deeply as the others.

Photo credit: Dennis Madden & James Rees

There’s no hidden meaning in Going The Distance, it’s not trying to be controversial or provoke debate – bar one brief mention at the start, there’s barely even any criticism of the confused government policy that closed the theatres in the first place. The play is quite simply a love letter to theatre, and a tribute to those of all shapes and sizes that haven’t been able to reopen their doors since Covid struck. The members of the Matchborough Community Theatre are certainly larger than life and played for laughs, but the fun being poked at them is always affectionate and sympathetic to their plight; ultimately what they’re fighting for becomes far more important than any annoying traits or petty squabbles.

Watching the play is also a reminder of the early days of the pandemic, a time that already seems distant and strange, and while it’s certainly poignant to think that some won’t be returning, it’s also uplifting to know that Covid hasn’t been able to kill off theatre completely. It’s an institution that means so much to so many, and this play is a heartwarming piece which perfectly highlights that universal love and respect.

Going The Distance is available to watch online until 17th October.

Review: Tokyo Rose at Southwark Playhouse

Based on the true story of one of America’s most controversial trials, Tokyo Rose is a new musical written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, directed by Hannah Benson, and performed by an all-female cast. It follows the life of Iva Toguri, an American woman who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1949, having been accused of broadcasting enemy propaganda to American troops during World War II. The show follows her from her teenage years, documenting her fierce devotion to her country, and the betrayal of that devotion by a victorious US government determined to root out traitors at any cost. In doing so, it confronts the audience head on with the racism that continues to play a significant role in the American justice system to this day, and questions to what extent we should allow our identity to be defined by where we come from.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

Born in the USA to immigrant parents, Iva (Maya Britto) is reluctant to embrace her Japanese heritage and proudly declares herself to be American through and through. After graduating from UCLA, she’s sent to Japan to care for a sick aunt (Kanako Nakano), but finds herself trapped when war breaks out and she’s unable to return home. When she refuses to give up her US citizenship, the Japanese authorities confiscate her ration card, and she’s forced to leave her aunt’s home and take a job as a typist to survive. Not long afterwards, she gets recruited as a broadcaster at Radio Tokyo, where she teams up with POW Major Charles Cousens (Cara Baldwin) to discreetly lift Allied troops’ spirits, whilst ostensibly doing the opposite.

Even for those unfamiliar with the Tokyo Rose story, it’s clear from the opening number that this is a tale of extraordinary injustice, and that the villain of the piece is America itself. Comparisons with both Six and Hamilton are there for the taking, but Tokyo Rose soon carves its own path, with William Patrick Harrison’s score quickly moving on from the perky pop style of the opening number and ramping up the intensity as Iva’s peril deepens. This can at times become a bit overwhelming, with key pieces of dialogue drowned out by the music (the testimony of two prosecution witnesses is almost completely lost, even in the cast recording) and occasionally the score feels more like a showcase for the cast’s vocal talents than it is a vehicle for the plot.

Then again, when you have a cast as good as this, there are worse things that could happen. Maya Britto plays Iva with a compelling mix of vulnerability and determination, and her solo number in Act 2 – at the moment Iva realises she’s been betrayed by the country she’s risked everything for – is truly stunning. Kanako Nakano is captivating as Iva’s frail aunt, and Lucy Park skilfully balances comedy and tragedy in dual roles as Iva’s jovial father and her colleague George, whose relationship with the US is far more complex than Iva’s.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

The show’s plot remains relatively faithful to the historic events they depict, and in trying to cover everything ends up perhaps a shade too long (the production has been expanded since its Edinburgh debut in 2019). That said, it’s a fascinating story with enough twists and turns to keep us hooked, and horrified, until Iva finally gets justice. Nor is Tokyo Rose just a retelling of history, but a challenge to expose and confront the anti-Asian xenophobia that continues to pervade western society. By focusing on the viewpoint of Iva the woman rather than the actions of Tokyo Rose the legend, the show opens a far more nuanced discussion about race and identity, which contrasts starkly with the one-sided rhetoric presented at her trial.

Earlier this week, an article appeared in the Telegraph asking if Britain really needs more musicals. All I can say to that is, if they’re as exciting as this one, why on earth wouldn’t we? While it’s not quite perfect, it certainly has the potential to be; this ambitious, energetic show is definitely one to watch.

Tokyo Rose is at Southwark Playhouse until 16th October, then continues on tour. For full details of dates and venues, visit https://www.burntlemontheatre.com/tokyo-rose