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Review: BE MORE CHILL, Shaftesbury Theatre

A show that surprises and delights, packed with wit and wisdom, delivered by a brilliant cast

Be More Chill

Be More ChillFor some, particularly the many young people in the house, it'll be the emotional highs and lows that hit home. For others, it'll be the sheer charm that wins them over. For most, it'll be a combination of those factors and the delight in seeing an old story told with a new confidence and verve in a theatrical setting that replicates the word-of-mouth buzz that brought the production all the way to Broadway and the West End. This is no formulaic show, despite its surface familiarity.

Jeremy is a nerdy teen who cannot speak to his heartthrob (and you get the feeling that his heart really does throb) Christine, stammering and paralysed by nerves and the fear of saying, doing, being the wrong thing. It's an American high school so there are a couple of Heathers, a jock, a bully and a best friend - and (natch) a school play to put on. When Jeremy is introduced to a Squip (a computer chip you ingest that manifests itself as a swaggering invisible companion with an answer to everything) his life changes, but is it all for the better?

Every performance is beautifully judged in a cast with no weak links either as actors, singers or, as in a joyous Act Two opener, dancers. Scott Folan is wonderfully winning as the protagonist, Jeremy, and it's a tribute to his portrayal that when genuine unpleasantness is called for, it is wholly believable without losing audience empathy (there's a lot of empathy, in fact, on view here from start to finish).

Miracle Chance (no, really) is splendid as his love interest, her crystal clear vocals marking her as a real presence in musical theatre for years to come. Stewart Clarke's The Squip veers close to the villainous Abanazar from Aladdin, but the arrogance never topples into caricature nor loses its menace, because we're aware of the high stakes for Jeremy, by now in too deep. And hats, if not quite pants, off to Christopher Fry, whose cameo as Jeremy's divorced father breaks no new ground, but does so with warmth and wit, "The Pants Song" saying what needs to be said to a few dads...

In what's likely to become a standalone set-piece prior to which regular attendees will nudge newbies and say "This is it", Blake Patrick Anderson steals the show with the anthem to teenage angst, "Michael in the Bathroom". He is a delight to watch throughout as the friend we all need as kids, but whom we all take for granted.

Covering some of the same ground as Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill has little of that show's surface polish, but its circuitous route to the Shaftesbury Theatre, much of it urged along by social media, gives the show a freshness and exactly the kind of quirky off-centredness that complements its themes of anxiety about fitting in, low self-esteem and the perils of reaching for easy answers to hard questions. Joe Iconis's songs are varied and catchy and help Joe Tracz's already urgent book speed events along at a pace that suits the YouTube generation.

Somehow, director Stephen Brackett has spun something unique from individual elements that do not leap off the page. They sure do leap off the stage though, in a sleeper hit that deserves to run and run.

Be More Chill is at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 5 September.

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From This Author - Gary Naylor