Get ready for But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical, doing high kicks, shaking its pompoms and, yes, kissing girls!
In the before times, I had a fun habit of going to the theatre with my queer friends and getting burgers afterwards. We’d slide into a booth with our carefully-wrapped late night sustenance and dissect what we’d just watched. Some nights were disappointing, some were breathtaking, but regardless of how incredible the show had been, we’d invariably come back to the same nagging question: where are all the lesbians though?
In the last few years London has been blessed with musicals covering such subjects as drag queens, snow queens, waitresses, genies, 9/11, homicidal highschoolers, fools and horses. But, with the notable exception of Fun Home, which played for two months at the Young Vic in 2018 – and remains one of only three Best Musical Tony Award winners this millennium not to have a full West End transfer – sapphic representation has been sorely lacking. Enter But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical, doing high kicks, shaking its pompoms and, yes, kissing girls!
Based on the cult 1999 film of the same name directed by Jamie Babbit, But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is a classic coming-of-age story with a twist. Megan (Alice Croft) is seventeen and loving life: she’s the captain of the cheer squad, she’s dating a footballer. There’s only one small problem. Her parents and friends have worked out she’s gay long before she has, and ship her off to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp, to straighten her out.
Despite being based on a film that came out more than two decades ago, the subject matter is still depressingly relevant as the UK government has still yet to ban conversion therapy. As recently as 2017, one in twenty LGBT people in this country reported being offered conversion therapy in their lifetimes.
The camp is home to an array of queer misfits, played by a sparky and talented young cast, many of whom put in a double shift, regularly switching roles to also play Megan’s high school friends who are increasingly worried about her back home. The opening number bursts into life with the cheer squad, made up of male-presenting and female-presenting cheerleaders, all wearing the same tiny skirts and bows in their hair, immediately signaling what type of show we might be in for.
Jodie Steele, of Heathers: The Musical fame, is particularly entertaining as Megan’s schoolfriend Kimberley and Hilary, a camper with a charmingly dodgy Kiwi accent, and Alice Croft shines as the titular cheerleader, bringing heaps of warmth, innocence and pluck to the role. On a personal note, I was thrilled to see a romantic lead with a slightly more curvy body type than we often see on stage – more of this please!
Tania Azevedo’s direction makes inventive use of the Turbine’s small stage, and the garish pink and blue colour scheme (because #GenderRoles) creates a feast for the eyes as we watch the increasingly surreal steps of True Directions’ programme unfold. So inevitable that it hardly counts as a spoiler, Megan the ‘good girl’ ends up falling for Graham the ‘bad girl’ (Evie Rose Lane, convincingly taking on the role played in the movie by sapphic icon Clea Duvall), who turns out to be more complicated than she first appears. It’s a well-worn path, but the familiar story beats just make the less familiar aspect – the overwhelming queerness – feel all the more fresh and exciting.
It is by no means a perfect musical – there were a few too many samey introspective monologue songs that didn’t move the story along; some supporting characters are given a little too much development and others not enough. But for all its flaws, I loved this show. As the first half came to a close and Megan belted out a rousing number about her baby queer feelings, I found myself genuinely moved. For the first time, in my thirties, I got to watch a relationship that looks like mine, with a girl who looks like me in it, in a musical on a London stage.
We didn’t go for burgers after the show, instead we battled through raging gale force winds to get home. It’s a clunky metaphor but I’ll make it anyway: the winds of change are blowing, and But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is arriving right on time. The first few weeks of the run are already sold out so snap up a ticket while you can – this peppy, hilarious, wonderfully queer little show deserves all the success in the world.
But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical, with Book and Lyrics by Bill Augustin and Music by Andrew Abrams, will run at the Turbine Theatre in Battersea from 18 February – 16 April 2022