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Cruel Intentions at the Other Palace review: musical makeover of the 90s hit is a fast, funny, guilty pleasure

 (Pamela Raith)
(Pamela Raith)

This deliciously trashy musical adaptation of the 1999 film inserts Nineties pop classics into its story of cynical sexual shenanigans among privileged New York teens. A fast, funny, guilty pleasure, it’s a fitting tribute to the popular touch of its late producer Bill Kenwright.

Cruelly, the big screen role of arch-schemer Kathryn Merteuil – alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer – was the last major career high for Sarah Michelle Gellar (who bracingly tells us to turn our phones off in a pre-show voiceover here). On stage, it proves a breakout vehicle for Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky, who has a belting soul-gospel crossover voice, and embodies the slinky perversity that makes the show zing. Her biography lists mostly tours and understudy work, plus a stint in Six. This swaggering turn should make her a star.

An update of the much-adapted 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Cruel Intentions added a twist, making the predatory, manipulative aristocrats Merteuil and “Sebastian” Valmont stepsister and brother.

Kathryn challenges compulsive womaniser Sebastian to seduce two virgins: Cecile, who has begun dating a boy who dumped Kathryn, and Annette, who has publicly proclaimed she’ll stay pure until marriage, and who happens to be sharing his aunt’s house with him. Kathryn offers her own body as forfeit if he succeeds, adding the notorious line: “You can put it anywhere…” Yes, folks, the Nineties were weird.

 (Pamela Raith)
(Pamela Raith)

The stage version, created by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and the film’s writer/director Roger Kumble, amplifies the racial dimension to the sexual and social power-politics, since Kathryn is black, as well as the man Rose Galbraith’s charmingly gawky Cecile truly loves. Daniel Bravo’s Sebastian is impeccably arrogant and knows how to rock a floaty shirt: Abbie Budden’s Annette is charming with a minxy edge.

The soundtrack embraces such oddball earworms as No Doubt’s Just a Girl, The Cardigans’ Lovefool, REM’s Losing My Religion and TLC’s No Scrubs. Some songs fit perfectly, like Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn, sung by Annette and Sebastian as they begin to fall in love, and The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which proves a surprisingly effective curtain-call climax. Other numbers are hammered in any old how.

It doesn’t matter thanks to the arch swagger of Jonathan O’Boyle’s production. The cast prance around the Other Palace’s revolve, executing moves that recall the era perfectly without going full breakdance (kudos to choreographer Gary Lloyd). Chorus lines of jocks and sweater girls pop out of alcoves to add doo-de-doo backing vocals.

There’s a gay subplot that starts out as another power-play but ends up sweetly wholesome, improbably soundtracked by the Spice Girls’ Wannabe. The whole thing is a sexy, smirky, tongue-in-someone-else’s cheek riot, gleefully politically incorrect. Why it hasn’t been cancelled is anybody’s guess.

The Other Palace, to April 13; book tickets here