From left, Jodie Steele, Carrie Hope Fletcher, T'Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs in 'Heathers: The Musical' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London © Pamela Raith

Heathers: The Musical is a strange beast. Based on the enduring cult classic Heathers, a liquorice-black comedy about peer pressure, teen suicide and memetics, it might appear to be peddling nostalgia to the middle-aged market that grew up with the film. But its fans are mostly teenage girls, and its songs are as cuddly as the film is subversive.

Veronica Sawyer, a normal girl in a normal Ohio school, somehow joins the cool clique while finding herself drawn to a Baudelaire-toting, greatcoat-wearing mystery boy named JD. Veronica is soon excommunicated from the clique, and vows revenge; her new paramour and accomplice has a gun and no discernible ethical boundaries.

As with most Broadway musicals that transfer to the West End, Heathers seems to have a British audience already primed to like the songs and love the characters. But “humanising” your characters (in this case, giving them sob-stories) doesn’t always work, especially when the humour is as mordant as that of Heathers. In the film, JD is a hyper-cool agent of destruction who, despite some allusions to his mother’s suicide, is animated by something akin to the “motiveless malignity” of Shakespeare’s Iago. In the musical, JD’s trauma at his dad’s uxoricide leads to the kind of Freud-goes-Midwestern cliché that has him bubbling with rage at his caricature of a father at every opportunity. He then morphs unconvincingly into the sort of “incel” who made the news earlier this year: his disintegrating love-life induces a lethal petulance.

Writers Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe also wrote the music and lyrics. Their uncertainty about their JD — angel of doom, lovelorn teen, or mentally ill mass-murderer? — is reflected in their quixotic approach to the darker material. A would-be rape scene (two football players, our heroine, a big field, no witnesses) is defused by Veronica daintily tripping up her assailants. Even for musical theatre, that’s a bit much — though it is accompanied by the great hip-hop number “You’re Welcome” (choreography by Gary Lloyd).

Andy Fickman’s production doesn’t pander to nostalgics: there’s no ’80s-style score, no heavy-handed ’80s signifiers, no exploitation of the film’s catchphrases. Carrie Hope Fletcher and Jamie Muscato sing and perform very well as Veronica and JD. Director Andy Fickman serves up some of the infectious numbers and occasional sharp wordplay you’d expect from a West End production.

But the play inherits the film’s damp squib of a denouement. It wants to be a razor blade concealed in a marshmallow; sadly, the blade is blunt.

★★★☆☆

To November 24, trh.co.uk

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