Nice-but-geeky Jeremy feels like a loser. If only he could be like the cool kids then he might have a chance with lovely Christine. Just when it looks like he’ll be forever in a two-player game with his best friend Mike, hope arrives in the shape of an edible nanocomputer (a Squip) that takes control of his brain, to make him cool.
Woven into this interesting set-up are allusions to drug culture, incels, and mental health, but the show dwells mostly in the familiar territory of The Breakfast Club and Sex Education. Those coming of age stories where the kids realise that insecurity and fear are universal, and that however outwardly confident, their peers are equally desperate for connection with others and the sense of being valued. While this take on the genre is quirky and likeable, it’s not strikingly original.
Musically, it’s a mixed bag, and few of the tunes stuck with me. Most of the songs are really wordy – almost like conversations delivered over background music – and some of the big ensemble numbers are also extremely loud and hard to decipher. Both musically and emotionally, the smaller numbers are the more powerful. Jeremy hits a nerve when he sings Loser Geek Whatever, and The Pants Song, where his dad resolves to put his trousers on, and pull his socks up, is as moving as it is funny. But Michael in the Bathroom is the most memorable song, full of rage, sorrow, humiliation and self-loathing. The situation it depicts, and the feelings it conveys, are not solely the preserve of youth.
The show’s aesthetic is bright and delightful, even if it feels designed for Instagram. The circuit board on the floor is a constant reminder that Jeremy has been subsumed by machine intelligence, while the back wall is a versatile giant screen, framed by a neon proscenium arch. Sometimes the screen is a processor, scrolling algorithms, sometimes a sort of TV screen, showing events elsewhere, but it’s most effective and immersive when it paints sets with light: the suburban streets of Jeremy’s neighbourhood, the iconic lockers of an American high school…
That vibrancy carries through into costumes which, for the students, are heavy on neon, sparkles and primary colours. Stewart Clarke, as the very charismatic personification of The Squip, wears a succession of silver Matrix-style trench coats that become more outré as his control increases.
Though Be More Chill is entertaining and visually exciting, its teenage characters are disappointingly shallow. Chloe and Brooke lack any emotional intelligence, Christine is necessarily authentic because she’s kooky and Jake, who appears to be a decent bloke, is brusquely written off as a douche bag, just to leave the way clear for Jeremy with Christine. Neither the music, the comedy nor the intellectual meat of the show are exciting enough to make up for this rather insulting deficit.
That said, Be More Chill did suggest an intriguing possibility. What if Dominic Cummings is, in fact, a Squip who has dosed the entire government? What if he appears to some as a bespectacled bald guy, to some as Keanu and to others as an animé cat? What if he has taken ministers to the heart of the action, but stripped them of empathy and made them entirely biddable. It can only be a matter of time before collective madness sets in. And only Mountain Dew can save us then!
Based on the book by: Ned Vizzini
Adapted by: Joe Tracz
Music and lyrics by: Joe Iconis
Directed by: Stephen Brackett
Produced by: Jerry Goehring and Lisa Dozier King
Booking link: https://www.bemorechillmusical.com/london/
Booking until: 3 May 2020