After over a year of not being able to go to the theatre due to the COVID-19 global pandemic which has hit so many people very hard, not least those who work in the performing arts, I was looking forward to seeing my first show since before the first lockdown in 2020. After such a long break from watching a live play, a vibrant musical that had previously been a success on Broadway, performed by an energetic young cast seemed like a good choice to get me back in the audience of a West End production. Be More Chilled at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End was to be that play.
The additional space resulting from the restrictions if anything made it a more comfortable experience.
Watching a play in a pandemic is a slightly different experience. There were temperature checks before you were allowed entry to the theatre and you had to scan a QR code on your phone or leave your name and address so you could be contacted if an outbreak of Covid-19 was traced back to the performance. Inside the auditorium, the seats immediately adjacent to individuals or groups of people were blocked off to achieve social distancing and overall the measures taken weren’t a big imposition on attendees, in fact the additional space resulting from the restrictions if anything made it a more comfortable experience.
From the first bars of the first song, More Than Survive, with its clever lyrics including the line “I don’t wanna be a hero, just wanna stay in the line, I’ll never be your Rob De Niro, For me Joe Pesci is fine”, things were off to a promising start. The staging was simple and mainly comprised of line drawings projected on a screen to give an impression of the location where a scene was set and there were minimal onstage furniture and props all of which contributed to giving the production a vibe of a high school play rather than a glossy West End production. Whether or not this was the intention, it was fitting as the play was largely set in a high school.
Be More Chill is the story of self-proclaimed geek Jeremy Heere (Scott Folan) who in the words of the first song’s title, wants to More Than Survive his time at high school. This involves becoming less uncool or to put it in the words of the show’s title, Be More Chill. He hopes this will make him more of a hit with the girls, or more specifically, his crush from afar, Christine Canigula played engagingly by Miracle Chance. This leads him to taking a pill called a Squip which implants computer technology in his brain giving him the ability to visualise a personal advisor who effectively becomes his chill tutor instructing him what to do in different situations.
It’s not entirely clear in what period the play is set but we know it’s in the near future because there is a reference to the singer Eminem being “very old”. This sets up one of the problems with the play because all its futuristic pretentions are incongruous with some of the outdated elements of the production. All the female characters are underdeveloped, so this is a play primarily about the men: the male geek, his best friend and the Squip.
The female characters are peripheral and mainly exist to display Jeremy’s growing confidence with women. There are also some old-fashioned attitudes to LGBT+ issues such as people who audition to be in the school play must be gay and when a character later comes out as being bi it’s used to get a cheap laugh. There also is not a lot of racial diversity going on and all the main roles are portrayed by white actors. That aside, the cast do a worthy job.
The cast do a worthy job.
Scott Folan exudes the right amount of quirky nerdiness to charm as geeky Jeremy at the start of the play and enough slick confidence to convince as leather jacket clad cool Jeremy in the second act. Blake Patrick Anderson impresses as the loyal but taken for granted friend Michael and Stewart Clarke radiates the right amount of danger as the Squib looking like the love child of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix and Kryten from Red Dwarf.
The songs are entertaining, but some are more memorable than others. They feel a bit like stand alone events rather than part of the continuous flow of the show and this gives the musical the feel of being a bit like a concert of songs instead of holding all together in as a coherent entity. However, there’s enough in this show that will leave most audience members content with what they have seen.