Wednesday, 19 January 2022

REVIEW: Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story at the Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing more gripping than a good murder mystery. On stage and screen, it’s kept a voracious public happy with tales of greed, ambition and revenge. Characters with a shady past and an even more suspect present keep us glued to the action. Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story has the added dimension of being a true story. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two wealthy students at the University of Chicago. In 1924, they kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago. It was predictably dubbed the crime of the century as the so-called ‘thrill-killers’ believed they committed the perfect crime. On the face of it, not a great subject on which to base a musical; but Stephen Sondheim proved the macabre can be tuneful with the legendary Sweeney Todd. Similarly, Stephen Dolginoff has written this compact musical that gives the darker side of human nature a distinctly original spin.

Presented as part of The Outsiders Season, this production benefits from a close almost claustrophobic set design. A pianist perched in the corner provides the sole musical accompaniment as a sinister tale steadily unravels. It begins in 1958 as prisoner Nathan Leopold (Bart Lambert) faces his latest parole hearing. He is asked for mitigation to justify his petition. A change of jackets and subtle adjustment in lighting and we are back in 1924.

A much younger and impressionable Nathan is infatuated with college friend Richard Loeb (Jack Reitman). He is no match for Loeb's skills of manipulation and falls under his spell at the merest glance. They soon embark on a series of petty crimes for the thrill of it. A reluctant Nathan is quickly persuaded in return for the intimacy he craves. Loeb soon becomes bored and wants to escalate their crime wave to murder.

Whilst billed as a musical, there is a strong feeling it slips into the sub-genre of a play with songs. With a stripped-down production it's difficult to imagine how it might look and sound with a full orchestra and more elaborate stage design. The songs are functional and provide a vehicle to carry the narrative forward. None of which makes the show any less effective. Lambert and Reitman are excellent in their respective roles, conveying the destructive chemistry between the characters. The lighting is hugely effective, using the simplest techniques to alter mood, timing and positioning in the plot. The trusty flashback device is also much in evidence. Bart Lambert cleverly alters his voice from youthful shrill to older growl as the story jumps back and forth. This is storytelling of the very highest order and captures the essence of two complex characters in 80 minutes – quite a feat.

Review by Brian Penn

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: E4 | Price of Ticket: £32/£28 concessions

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