‘Have you had a brain tumour for breakfast?” “What’s your damage, Heather?” and, most of all, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw!” The 1980s produced plenty of catchphrase-heavy movies, but none were quite as kitschy as the 1988 cult film Heathers. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, both absurdly beautiful and cool, played teenage misfits Veronica and JD, who – at his instigation – kill off the popular bullies at school, embodied by a trio of girls each called Heather. Unlike other sepia-tinted teen movies of the era, Heathers had a cartoonish yet ironic nastiness to it. It was also made when the idea of high-school students shooting people in a school cafeteria seemed absurdly fantastical.
For all of these reasons, Heathers is an unlikely movie to turn into a stage musical. Films adapted for the West End are the new jukebox musicals, stories seeking out songs as opposed to songs in need of a storyline. But Heathers is a very different beast from, say, Dirty Dancing and Legally Blonde, both of which were made into successful musicals. (Heathers the Musical co-writer Lawrence O’Keefe also co-wrote Legally Blonde the Musical.) The story is more surreal and savage. To get around this, O’Keefe and co-writer Kevin Murphy largely defang their source material. Many of the movie’s more interesting ambiguities are removed – Veronica (played with energetic sweetness by Carrie Hope Fletcher) doesn’t deliberately kill anyone, JD (an excellent Jamie Muscato) is more creepy than cool. Kids die on stage, but this is treated with a Little Shop of Horrors-esque campiness as opposed to the movie’s gut punch. Halfway through, I wondered why O’Keefe and Murphy had bothered remaking Heathers instead of one of the paler, simpler movies it inspired – Mean Girls, for example. Then I realised Mean Girls had already been turned into a musical, too.
A show should not be hamstrung by its origins; the only thing that matters is whether it works on its own terms, and the answer here is: kind of. Heathers surprisingly, and thankfully, plays down the 80s setting, opting for a more universal sense of teenage life, with all its bullying and neuroses. The audience – who all looked as if they were born at least two decades after the movie came out – shrieked with joy throughout. (If jukebox musicals are for baby boomers, musicals inspired by films are emphatically for their children and grandchildren.)
This musical justifies its existence best when it goes to weird extremes, such as when a bitchily disdainful Heather Chandler (Jodie Steele, who comes close to stealing the show) haunts Veronica after she is killed off. The music is so generic it falls out of your memory as soon as you leave the theatre, with the exception of two lovely ballads: Seventeen, in which Veronica pleads to be a normal, non-murdering teenager, and Freeze Your Brain, JD’s paean to the frozen slushies that help him numb his feelings (“Freeze your brain! / Suck on that straw, get lost in the pain / Happiness comes when everything numbs / Who needs cocaine?”). In such moments, Heathers nails what made the movie so great, and goes even deeper.
• At Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 24 November.