Review by Daz Gale
Visitors to the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester will be acutely aware of the high quality that is associated with their shows with recent productions of RENT, The Wiz, and Cinderella (no, not that one) blowing audiences away. For their 23rd in-house production, they are debuting a new approach to their productions, allowing audiences around the UK to experience a bit of the Hope Mill in their hometowns. As part of a short UK tour, their latest offering LIZZIE arrives in London, but would this production be as killer as their previous ones?
Billed as a true crime rock musical, LIZZIE tells the story of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was arrested for the murder of her father and stepmother. Perhaps not the cheeriest of subjects, but go with it. This musical recounts the stories of four women as Lizzie (Lauren Drew), her sister Emma (Shekinah McFarlane), friend/lover Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed), and maid Bridget (Mairi Barclay) all tell their parts of the story as what may have happened in the lead up to the double murder is recounted. This musical adaptation premiered in New York in 2009 and was last seen in London in 2017 with the Danish production. This new production marks the first UK-created version of the show.
With minimal dialogue across the two relatively short acts, LIZZIE is packed with musical numbers that come thick and fast, all blisteringly loud, creating the feeling you are in a venue far larger than the still fairly intimate Southwark Playhouse Elephant. Written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, the musical numbers are all glorious, brilliantly conveying the story through the medium of music. The dialogue mostly serves as a brief setup to the next song, meaning you are never waiting too long before having your face blown off by the incredible vocals and melodies.
A great score requires a great cast and luckily there is no shortage of them in the four phenomenal women that gather to tell this story. Shekinah McFarlane thrills when she gets the opportunity to stand front and centre with standouts ‘Sweet Little Sister’ and the fabulously filthy ‘What The F***, Now, Lizzie?’. Maira Barclay narrates proceedings immaculately with knowing looks to the audience and the kind of attitude that at times felt like she was one step to strutting down a runway, of course displaying sensational vocals to boot. Maiya Quansah-Breed proves what a triple threat she is as Alive effortlessly showcases her remarkable talents at every opportunity and particularly shining in her scenes and duets with Lizzie.
While the three other women all have important roles, this is very much the Lizzie show. For such a vital character, it requires a powerhouse performer who is ready to murder every song she is given the opportunity to (in the best possible way, that is). Step forward, Lauren Drew. Already well-loved among the musical theatre community thanks to her star turns in Legally Blonde and Six, if you slept on her talents before LIZZIE, you won’t be sleeping on them any longer. What Lauren does in this show is nothing short of spectacular, stunning at every turn with her otherworldly phenomenal vocals and unrivaled ability to step into a character with ease, especially one as complicated as Lizzie Borden. From the sweeter moments of the character to the darkest moments, Lauren shows extreme versatility as a performer and holds the whole show together even at moments when it threatens to come apart.
At times performed as a straightforward musical, LIZZIE tends to transform itself into a gig musical with each of the women taking microphones out and making the already loud show that much louder, before reverting back to the musical format. William Whelton’s direction ensures this is done as smoothly as possible, meticulously navigating between the two mediums and making sure this never crosses the line of being jarring. William’s choreography elevates the performances with some impressive sequences making the musical numbers exhilarating to witness.
Beautifully designed by Andrew Exeter, a deceptively simplistic set resembles the Borden’s barn but transitions to the main house with some inspired use of video design from Dan Light. Andrew’s lighting design also thrills, bathing the set in dark atmospheric lighting. For a very loud show, the sound design from Adam Fisher is crystal clear, allowing the audience to hear every word and never distort what can’t be the easiest of shows to balance.
LIZZIE has a couple of faults with it though. While the musical numbers are mostly top quality, there are a couple of dud numbers among them, with ‘Why Are All These Heads Off?’ being the one I personally could have done without. I keep mentioning how loud the show is and while some will love that, it may prove a bit uncomfortable for others and also make the narrative slightly hard to follow at times. While the show ended in a very strong manner, I could have done without the Six style megamix that provided the encore, complete with wholly unnecessary modern costumes. To me, this cheapened the show and lessened the impact of what was otherwise a fantastic end to a fantastic show. These are minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things though and didn’t detract from the quality throughout.
If you like your music loud and your protagonists murderous, LIZZIE is the show for you. Fans of Heathers and Six will eat up this musical with its unique narrative style switching from musical to concert. With a stunning cast led by a truly thrilling performance from Lauren Drew and some instantly memorable songs, there is a lot to love about this production. LIZZIE it is a great example of what the Hope Mill does so expertly. Let’s hope this is the first of many of their amazing productions to be seen in London and all over the country. While it may not be perfect, LIZZIE is still bloody good.
LIZZIE plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 2nd December. Tickets from www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Photos by Pamela Raith