The upstairs room of The Hope and Anchor is always the extra character in every play I’ve seen, it’s like a sentient being in an Alan Moore fantasy, one that is haunted by the intentions of stage and lightning designers and the stories they tell. Tonight, the room was working overtime as artistic director Matthew Parker’s flair for movement and space brought out new and genuinely shocking dimensions as it always does.
Leopold and Loeb, the two “thrill-killers” suddenly feel the Police closing in and the nervy Leopold swings a torch around revealing a wall plastered with photographs and cuttings from the original murder in 1924. These are all linked together by red cord which criss-crosses the walls and the space above our heads; we’re in an incident room and a young boy has just been horribly murdered by two hyper-intelligent sociopaths.
The two men were saw themselves as Nietzschean supermen, whose superior intellects should allow them to rise above the laws of common men, they began to indulge in criminal exercises just for the hell of it and again, there’s a particularly visceral sequence in which they torch a warehouse and Loeb’s face is lit bright red as he revels in the transgressive destruction and sings, Nothing Like a Fire. There is also a powerful sexual connection between the men and their deeds with Loeb, always the master, making sex conditional on their escapades and passions run alarmingly high after each crime.
|Jack Reitman. All photos credit lhphotoshots|
Parker doesn’t hold back and before you know it the audience is complicit in the relationship and the tragic attractions of this deadly pursuit, I’ve seen a lot of excellent shows at this venue and Thrill Me is surely one of the most intimately engaging: we’re dared to look into the hearts of men who committed the most appalling of acts, killers who Leopold later said were only human. This is a musical but of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding kind.
For all this to work, you need exceptional leading men and in Bart Lambert and Jack Reitman, Parker has found actors who not only look the part but have West-End power to their vocals as well as nuanced emotional control. As the dominant Richard Loeb, Reitman’s film-star looks are backed up by subtle reading of his character; yes, Loeb is the most overtly sociopathic and daring of the couple but he is also allowed chinks of vulnerability that show he needs his lover as much, perhaps, as he is needed.
Bart Lambert imbues Nathan Leopold with a febrile uncertainty, driven by an obsessive love for Richard and the constant cruelty pushed his way – Loeb calls him “Babe” but only sparingly as he knows he likes it… he undermines at every turn but perhaps he needs the lift?
|Bart Lambert. Photo lhphotoshots|
Together they drive each other on as the two law students think of ever more thrilling ways to break the rules they have studied - both still aspiring to be lawyers "after".
Stephen Dolginoff’s musical was originally staged in 2003 and tells the story in flashback from Leopold’s parole hearing in 1958 with the narrative switching back and forth to key moments in the men’s relationship. The songs are strong and allow both voices to shine as they sing about subjects that by all rights should be too complex, Richard’s singing about luring their murder victim to his car in Roadster is quite the most disturbing song I’ve heard all year and yet it’s pitched just right; you feel terrible and yet there’s a glimpse of the motivation behind this horrific act.
Tim Shaw sits behind the keyboards, accompanying in fine style, at first noticeable and then fading into the background - in the best possible way - as the story takes hold.
IthankyouTheatre rating: ***** For those who don’t believe that musical theatre can tackle complicated real-life stories this is unmissable; it’s an adventure into the lives and love of two killers that fearlessly asks “why?”