“Welcome back to the freakin’ theatre”, a pre-show announcement calls out with an American twang, setting the zany mood that comes to define this musical treat.
After fumbling through London’s rain and Shaftesbury Theatre’s new-fangled one-way system, Be More Chill began with a burst of action, which immediately washed the grey clouds and puzzle of corridors away.
The show is an adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel of the same name. We follow a brief snapshot in the life of Jeremy Heere, a high school senior played by Scott Folan. As you’ll immediately guess (and are often reminded about) Jeremy fits perfectly within the geek, nerd, or nobody trope; he’s the ultimate loser, in the ultimate Americanised vision of school life. He’s surrounded by other kooky characters, also cartoon-like in their own representation of clichés: the popular girls, the jock, the bully, the stoner, and the theatre kid.
Luckily, the musical ends up leaning into these cheesy character traits for comic effect. The same-old, expected stereotypes are purposeful in the end, although a tad cringy at first. We come to know the layers that lie beneath these clichés, which are thankfully – and refreshingly – challenged.
Praise is first and foremost due to Be More Chill’s soundtrack. Joe Iconis is the virtuoso behind the musical numbers and lyrics, providing many earworms and quick to pick up tunes. A challenge for any singer to tackle, the songs demand a range of falsetto, riffs, runs, and belts. Special commendations go to James Hameed (as Rich Goranski) and Renée Lamb (as Jenna Rolan), who may play smaller roles within the show’s wider plot, but stunned and astounded with their vocal performances.
From the opening number until halfway through act one, a game of ‘guess the subgenre’ came into play. The show’s themes took a while to settle in, and surely kept us on our toes. At first it seems Be More Chill will follow the plot line of High School Musical and the infamous school play, until a thin layer of dystopia is smeared atop the American dream.
We are side-tracked by a story that would not be out of place in an episode of Black Mirror. To supersede his loser status, Jeremy is persuaded to take a mysterious pill… but it isn’t a drug, it’s a Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor – a SQUIP. A tiny CPU, a piece of AI, a little computer. The SQUIP plants itself in Jeremy’s brain and brings about his ‘winning’ streak, by simply telling him what to do – how to be popular, how to be chill.
The potential darkness of the plot is kept light by an abundance of brightness and excitement; the musical still remains upbeat, even when shadowed by an eerie concept of mind control. The SQUIP is personified onstage and cleverly played by Stewart Clarke who, dressed in an array of space age outfits, allowed whimsy to overrule solemnity. The multi-roling cast also donned a kaleidoscope of costumes, keeping colour and fun alive.
Some pacing issues, which disrupted the flow of act one, didn’t permeate the show on the whole. Even though the tempo initially felt disjointed – as awkward dialogue and prolonged silences jarred against the music’s vibrancy – the pace accelerated as act two ushered in. The dance numbers became more extravagant, and the ante was well and truly ‘upped’.
After hibernating for over a year, that magical musical feeling and sense of wonderment filled the theatre. The interval and ending were never waited for, expected, or wanted; endless and joyful applause was a testament to theatre being, finally, freakin’ back.
Be More Chill is running at Shaftesbury Theatre until 5th September 2021.