Amidst the sparkling heart of the rich’s newest playground, Battersea Power Station, busy not with pollution but with people, returns the musical But I’m a Cheerleader. Based on the iconic 1999 film that thrust Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall into stardom, Bill Augustin and Andrew Abrams’ musical aims to tread the line between the film’s dark irony and the spiny issue of conversion therapy, rather slipping in the process.
Both Teresa May and Boris Johnson promised (but failed) to ban conversion therapy in the UK, clearly it is one of the biggest threats facing the LGBTQIA2S+ community. As a member of the alphabet crew myself, it saddens and disgusts me that these places still exist in the modern world. Maybe a musical isn’t the best way to cover such a topic but it’s always helpful in keeping these practices in the public’s mind.
Yet Jami Babbit’s film subtly and satirically pokes fun at gender stereotypes, the American school system, and the truly ridiculous idea of changing someone’s inbuilt sexual orientation. The important word here is subtlety, something that is in short supply at the Turbine Theatre.
Greeted by David Shields’ bubble gum pink set, the aesthetic of the film is kept consistent. Considering the space confines, many levels and location changes are effectively created. In rushes Jessica Aubrey, our practically-perfect-in-ever-way lead cheerleader Megan. The story follows her confinement in a conversion therapy camp and eventual self-discovery as a lesbian and subsequent romance.
Energy and vocal-wise we have some jaw-dropping skill, and many involved are gifted comedians to boot. Aubrey has the blonde looks and vocal clout to carry the demanding musical style. Conveying the naive believability that is needed for the overall joke to land. “But I’m a cheerleader,” she repeats, dumbfounded about her sexuality.
Georgina Hagen, as the American version of Dolores Umbridge, has the most powerful and impressive voice. She deals with her pink-hued baddie marvelously, playing the camp’s founder and leader Mary Brown. Michael Mather drives the comedy as Megan’s thick but handsome boyfriend Rock and Mary Brown’s hilariously effeminate son, Jared. Great at also covering more than role is Ash Weir, playing Megan’s best gal pal/cheerleader Kimberly and fellow camp inmate Hilary.
Noel Sullivan, as the gloriously camp camp supervisor Mike, also makes an impressive drag queen. Overall, all the cast members throw themselves into the production helter-skelter. They bound into Alexzandra Sarmiento’s lively choreography with as much bash as the petite theatre allows.
But no amount of energy, innuendo, glitter, and punning can make up for bad writing. Augustin’s dialogue is painfully literal, gifted with sexual comedy but chronically simplistic when it comes to lyrics. Instead of externalising their emotional state, the characters simply sing the plot.
One example (of many) is Patrick Munday’s character Dolph’s (a wrestler) song ‘Wrestling’, about him wrestling with his sexuality. I understand the temptation of low-hanging fruit (pun intended) but this is too on the nose, surely? It’s as if Disney was brave enough to do a musical about gays, with a sprinkling of smut to keep adults in their seats. Platitudes, simple rhymes, and generalising explanation songs take the place of the film’s razor-sharp wit.
Abrams’ music, although drawing out some impressive belting from the cast, is rather homogeneous throughout. Tim Jasper’s musical directing choices let down various actors. For example, Megan Hill as Graham has the bad girl love interest vibe down, but is overstretched in their big number despite a rich voice, as it seems to be in much too high a register.
Despite Tania Azevedo’s ambitious directing, this castle is built on sand, defended by an army of energetic, gifted performers and creatives and backed by talented musicians. Yet woefully under-supported by the framework of the show itself.
Highlights are the lighter moments such as the sexual simulation song where the whole cast enjoys a thoroughly silly musical number. Yet issues arise here as well. The musical’s conclusion descends into chaos as the cast is overcome with giggles, finding it tough to battle through the sentimental quicksand. If even the cast cannot take the musical’s over-earnest plot seriously, how can we be expected to as the audience?
Snatch a ticket, if you must, here!