sat 25/05/2024

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Jermyn Street Theatre review - True Crime musical gets West End showcase | reviews, news & interviews

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Jermyn Street Theatre review - True Crime musical gets West End showcase

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Jermyn Street Theatre review - True Crime musical gets West End showcase

Child killers seduce us with charisma and song

The kiss of death: Jack Reitman and Bart Lambert in 'Thrill Me' Images - Steve Gregson

There's a lot of True Crime stuff about, so it's hardly a surprise to see Stephen Dolginoff's 2003 off-Broadway musical back on the London stage, a West End venue for the Hope Theatre's award-winning 2019 production. Whether one needs to see a pair of charismatic child killers given a platform to explain their crimes while the victim, Bobby Franks, is merely a name, his face as absent as it was after the acid was poured all over it – well, you can make your own judgement about that.

A serious point maybe, but this is a serious show, the intensity of the two men's relationship enhanced by the tiny stage beautifully designed by Rachael Ryan, the horror of their crime diminished only by the passage of 98 years. Such spaces lend the audience a complicity in the murderers' plotting, a proximity that invites us to hold up a hand when things go too far and provokes that dubious frisson of vicarious transgression that attends much of the growing craze for accounts and recreations of lurid crimes on podcasts and streaming services. Sadism sells – it always has.

The tone of the show is set in the overture, Benjamin McQuigg's left hand all portentous low notes and his right all high-pitched urgency, the piano as much a character in the tale as the two young men. A space like this can challenge a musical director to balance instruments and voices, so it is to McQuigg's credit that his piano is always present, but never overpowers. Thrill MeBart Lambert gives us an educated, but immature, Nathan Leopold, besotted by Richard Loeb, played by Jack Reitman (pictured above) as a wanabee Noel Coward but with destruction rather than wit his weapon of choice. With one man willing to do anything for the other and that other willing to do anything to live up to his self-appointed status as an exemplar of Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch, the pair egg each other on, until the inevitable "perfect crime" is conceived and, equally inevitably, botched.

Dubbed by a frenzied press, as so many were before and after, "The Crime of the Century", the murder has been the subject of many adaptations, but it's only in more recent times that the gay relationship between the men could be made explicit. Lambert and Reitman place that at the heart of the pair's motivation, the younger man, possessed of a moral compass but willing to do the elder's bidding whatever that might be, his love for a psychopath bringing him down. 

Both sing well, the score more of a Sondheimian invocation of moods and character rather than a series of big numbers and showstoppers. The music, as it always does in theatre especially when sung as up close and personal as it is here, only ratchets up the emotions still further and few won't be seduced by handsome, clever young men, well-dressed and singing like angels. Sometimes it's hard to maintain the knowledge that they are planning and executing child abduction and murder – the True Crime voyeur's moral dilemma again.

At a time when the self-appointed entitlement of those with wealth and education to live outside accepted social norms could hardly be higher on the news agenda, Thrill Me has a relevance above and beyond its genre source material. With that relevance comes a responsibility, if not on the stage itself then perhaps in the programme, to give some humanity back to the victim who is more than a prop in the drama. That's surely not too much to ask.

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