The Royal Opera House and Theatre Royal Haymarket
When The light decided that she wanted to see Bill Bailey we quickly discovered that the dates for his upcoming tour had been re-arranged due to Covid, and that the ones closest to us in Essex were either sold out (Southend) or had stopped operating (Brentwood). We leapt on Saturday matinee tickets for his residency at the Royal Opera House as soon as it was announced. Not much later we were watching Heathers, the pitch-black Winona Rider and Christian Slater comedy about an American high school nihilist who goes on a murder spree using fake suicides as cover. When I mentioned that Heathers was now a musical being staged in London evening tickets were added to the itinerary.
If that sounds profligate given the recent thread on the cost of tickets these days, these were all bargains. Stalls circle seats for Bill, about 5 rows plus the width of the empty orchestra pit from the stage, were £20 each. They were sold as ‘restricted view’ but that would only matter if you wanted to see an extravagantly staged opera with a huge set, when you don’t need to see any higher than Bill-Bailey-height they were ideal. Nosebleed seats for Heathers at the Theatre Royal Haymarket were even cheaper at £15 each. These were sold with the dire warning that they were ‘extremely restricted view -90% of stage obscured!’ but having checked them out on Seatplan.com I thought that was a gross exaggeration, and so it proved. I took the poorer of the two, and even as a man of average height I only missed a corner of the stage and very little of the action.
After that long preamble how were the shows? Bill Bailey’s greatest weapon is his sheer likeability. He hit the stage with some observations on Covid and the cabinet that he had to get of his chest, and from then on it was a series of musical and spoken sections with little to connect them except that they were usually gut-bustingly funny, and that whatever Bill was doing it was all but impossible to take your eyes off him. And it was a series of funny bits rather than a connected show ‘about’ something in the usual current stand up style.
The two Saturday shows were filmed for future broadcast so I can say with confidence that you can look forward to ‘the bin of wonder’, ‘Nessum Dorma play on cowbells’ and, a particular highlight for me, ‘Tom Waits plays Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ (‘he took the vowels from New Direction … EI … EI … O’). Bill Bailey is a man who’s entirely successful mission in life is to make people happy, and this show was a sheer joy from its political start to the end, which incidentally is, I’m willing to guess, the only show at the ROH which has ever finished with the audience on their feet and chanting along to Highway to Hell.
After a disappointing overpriced coffee (Abuelo in Covent Garden should you wish to avoid it), a walk during which I went past but didn’t enter Fopp (just as well from the sounds of it) and some of the best pizza in Soho (Pizza Pilgrims on Dean Street, and should they wish to acknowledge this generous and unsolicited tribute with free food I will entirely understand) we reached our second show of the day. The upper reaches of the Theatre Royal are ridiculously steep but nonetheless we carefully reached our places without tumbling to our doom, and with me only clutching onto one other customer’s knee for support. (‘I’m so sorry, ’ I told him, ‘I thought you were a chair.’) In contrast to the ROH where distancing was in operation with entire rows being left empty between occupied seats this looked very close to a full house.
Much of that full house was made up of young women, who whooped when the Heathers and Veronica Sawyer made their appearances on stage, though many of them were of a homely character and I wouldn’t mind betting they identify more closely with Martha Dunnstock. The two leads, Veronica and JD are played by alumni of the west end run of Bat Out of Hell, Christina Bennington and Jordan Luke Gage. If Bennington’s American accent is shrill to the point of incomprehension at times her air raid siren voice is by some way the dominant performance.
The first half is broadly made up of Veronica’s enrolment into the Heathers and distancing from them as she becomes attached to JD. The songs are sung by and about young people, so it’s probably not surprising that I enjoyed the second half songs more, despite a lapse into sentimentality which I will mention further below. Many of these are sung by adult characters, starting with my favourite of the whole show My Dead Gay Son. Fans of the film will recognise the line form the script, but it’s the only one to get it’s own song. Others crop up but in dialogue only, so there is no meet-cute based around ‘How very’ nor a show-stopping stomper called Fuck Me Gently With a Chainsaw, which is a shame.
It occurred to me as I watched the film that day that it is odd that, to my knowledge, blame for high school shooting in America has been placed on musicians such as Marilyn Manson while Heathers hasn’t been mentioned. It predates, and in some ways foresees, fatal events such as Columbine without being connected to them. It is difficult to imagine a comedy about high school killings being made now that they have actually happened many times. The show’s solution to this is to neuter the original satire to an extent. Veronica is a more active protagonist, especially sexually, while JD is more more sympathetic, and there are fewer killings than in the film. The message (stop reading if you don’t want a plot spoiler to the ending of a 30 year old film) is that once JD has been defeated, literally hoist by his own petard, everyone can be accepting of each other and, as the show closer insists, everything will be Beautiful!!! It’s a mood change from the original, where you are left knowing that the most important thing is to recognise evil where it exists and toughen up to deal with it rather than finding it attractive.
Eve if I was engaged in comparative analysis and finding the musical version slightly lacking, the younger people in the crowd were having an absolute ball.
Bill Bailey’s audience was similar to that we usually see at the ROH for operas, and somewhat lighter on the very upper end of well-heeled. ‘Are there any eye-surgeons in the house?’ asked Bill at one point. ‘Of course there are – just look at you!’
The Heathers crowd was as described above, younger, largely female, boisterous and having the time of their lives.
It made me think..
Nature is definitely healing. Not only are the street performers back in Covent Garden Market, the drunks are back on the late night vomit-comets out of Liverpool Street on a Saturday night. Part of Bill’s show concerned overheard conversations, so I took particular delight in the group of young, very drunk men in the seats opposite. ‘You know .. you know .. Neapolitan ice cream?’ one of them drawled. Long pause before the reply. ‘I know of it.’