Words: Tim Heap
In an age where we’re told the younger generations — millennials and below — are choosing to spend more money on experiences than cornerstone material possessions such as, say, a house, it makes sense that shows focused on those teenage years are coming thick and fast to London’s theatre scene.
Joining the likes of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, & Juliet and Dear Evan Hansen is off-Broadway transfer Be More Chill, adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2004 YA novel of the same name.
Set in an American high school, the show centres around awkward, nerdy teenager Jeremy (Scott Folan), whose dreams to be one of the cool kids — and attract the attention of curiously kooky drama student Christine (Miracle Chance) — are suddenly within reach with the help of a Squip.
Standing for “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor”, a Squip is a black-market pill from Japan that implants a personalised chill guru into the user’s brain, visible only to them.
In Jeremy’s case, after spending $400 buying one from a shady shoe-store employee and washing it down with green Mountain Dew, his takes the form of a Matrix-era Keanu Reeves lookalike, whose futuristic costume gets a sickening upgrade every time his masterplan takes a step forward.
With the Squip’s guidance and a new Eminem t-shirt, Jeremy soon starts to shed his uncool image and becomes one of the popular kids — though, from an audience perspective, his transformation doesn’t quite feel as well-earned as you’d hope.
One of the casualties of this change is Jeremy’s friendship with fellow gamer geek Michael (Blake Patrick Anderson), who finds himself shunned after the Squip sneakily blocks him from Jeremy’s vision.
After some fun scenes of teenage escapades — a house party and the subsequent gossip, as recounted by BFFs/frenemies Brooke (Eloise Davies), Chloe (Millie O’Connell) and Jenna (Renée Lamb) — the plot comes to a head in a fairly predictable way as the teenagers, most of whom are now equipped with their own Squips, perform a post-apocalyptic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Realising that the Squip’s desire to control and conform everyone actually isn’t the best outcome, Jeremy and Michael vanquish it and free their fellow students — it’s a kind of “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love someone else” moment that while valid isn’t a particularly fresh approach to a universal feeling.
There are moments in Be More Chill that work well: some genuinely funny lines, clever staging, strong performances and a couple of musical numbers that feel close to being earworms (Two-Player Game, Michael in the Bathroom).
However, much like its teenage characters, it feels somewhat confused about its own identity and where it fits into the teenage musical landscape, especially in a world that’s changed so much since the source material was published.
But it’s important not to underestimate the power of goodwill from its target young audience, whose efforts on social media and streaming services revived the original production and got it this far.
If Be More Chill can listen to its own message — a rallying cry for self-belief — then it could navigate the murky waters of off-West End success as confidently as a post-Squip Jeremy.
Be More Chill runs at The Other Palace Theatre until 3 May. bemorechillmusical.com
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