2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate?!
But I’m A Cheerleader occupies a legendary spot in queer cinema. Released in 1999, its open expression of unashamed queerness to RuPaul’s iconic portrayal of Mike — a rare appearance outside of drag — this story of reclaimed and timeless ‘despite the odds’ love deserves a spot among the ranks of other classic romantic comedies. Taking apart the dreamy and ever-so-perfect ‘girl next door’ cheerleader and interlacing it with a femme narrative created a space for young people to see themselves triumphing against the stereotypical heteronormative society, at a time when LGBTQ+ communities struggled to define themselves in the face of oppression.
The musical adaptation of this story first found its feet in 2005, being debuted at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It found a second life in 2017 as part of Paul Taylor-Mill’s ‘MT Fest’, whereby Bronté Barbé and Carrie Hope Fletcher played the roles of Megan and Graham, respectively. The beginning of 2022 saw But I’m A Cheerleader‘s first full-scale production finding its home at Taylor-Mill’s newly developed Turbine Theatre, tucked away in the re-developed Battersea Power Station. The Turbine is a true gem of Off West End Theatre — a deep love for theatre lies at the heart of its decoration and premise. Playbills from the last couple of decades line the hallway, and unmissable neon pink lights illuminate it from the street. Its decor is cohesive and a true joy to behold.
One of the high points of this production, inspired directly by the movie, is the use of costume and colour. Megan’s journey from her orange cheerleading costume to her two-toned pink New Directions uniform is undoubtedly an explicit nod to the lesbian flag. Again, the combination of the girls’ and the boys’ camp uniforms makes up the colours of the transgender flag. The monochromatic use of colour both in film and on stage is beyond idyllic and gives this production something extraordinarily unique and fun to play around with.
A larger set would undoubtedly assist in making the show feel ‘larger’, as it currently suffers somewhat from feeling somewhat rushed. More dynamic set pieces and a larger ensemble would definitely help to fill out the production. However, this version at The Turbine has undoubtedly done as much as physically possible with the small space it has to fill. On the other hand, smaller theatres have the advantage of forging an intimate connection with the audience, which But I’m A Cheerleader wholly takes advantage of throughout the show, particularly at the end of the production.
But I’m A Cheerleader is almost certainly a continuation of the recent trend within musical theatre of adapting the cult classics of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, that consequetly develop entirely new followings because of social media. Both Heathers (released in 1989) and Be More Chill (a book published in 2004) too received their off-West End debuts (in 2018 and 2020, respectively) at The Other Palace again under the production of Paul Taylor-Mills, alongside other producers and directors. More recently, Mean Girls (2004) was too adapted for the Broadway stage in 2018. All of the above have since developed devoted online fanbases, often highlighting the visible and inexplicit homosexual dynamics between the characters and within the plot. This celebration of queerness is unlikely to ever disappear, and as long as virality on platforms such as Tumblr and TikTok continues, But I’m A Cheerleader is sure to develop a devoted fanbase wholly appreciative of unequivocal queer representation on the theatrical stage.
This production falls particularly short in its score, with an overall lack of memorable motifs and, at times, simplistic rhyming and predictable lyrics. Despite this, Seeing True Colours’ is one of this show’s best musical moments — a moment where multiple characters sing of their inner turmoil and a myriad of melodies create a beautiful warmth which perfectly rounds out the first act. ‘A Whole New Me’ also deserves to be highlighted as a scene that granted a place of oppression some great humanity, with much credit earned by this show’s outstanding ensemble.
‘Into The Light’ is again one of the show’s high points, in which the True Directions sneak out to a gay bar and step into their own lights under the enthusiasm and encouragement of the (newly added) trio of drag queens. This ‘rewrite’ updates the script in a way that adds a new layer of relatability to modern audiences as drag has thrived, arguably largely thanks to RuPaul. In the event that But I’m A Cheerleader finds itself in a larger space — or possibly the West End — this would be a phenomenal opportunity to bring in a rotating cast of legendary and up-an-coming drag queens for unforgettable cameos. Having a blonde mass of hair turn around to reveal itself to be Trixie Mattel or Bimini Bon Boulash would make this production legendary and would continually bring audiences back for more.
Jodie Kemp is deserving of monumental praise, having stepped in to save the day on press night upon the illness of Jessica Aubrey. Her interpretation of Megan is innocent yet becoming, emerging as a far more confident and fulfilled version of herself. Megan Hill (as Graham) is a vocal powerhouse to behold — their beautifully slicked hair is almost impossible to take your eyes off of. The entire cast shines in this production, each interpreting the script, vocal score, and characters in a wholly convincing and enjoyable. Michael Mather also deserves a shoutout in his portrayal of Jared and Rock, the latter beind Headmistress Mary’s (not so) closeted son who effortlessly steals every scene he appears in.
But I’m A Cheerleader certainly holds an immense amount of potential. Its repeated visits to Off West End venues indicate that there is clearly a ravenous appetite for the joy it brings audiences. Despite its weaknesses, continued development will make But I’m A Cheerleader a force to be reckoned with, occupying a much needed place of fearlessly queer and lesbian representation in British theatre.