Book, Music and Lyrics: Stephen Dolginoff
Director: Guy Retallack
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Everyone feels superior at some point – whether it be rolling your eyes at the person who fails to stand on the correct side of the escalator, the person in your office with no general knowledge, or even the friends who repeatedly makes disastrous life choices. These small moments are normal, driven by the biological urge to compete that ensures the survival of most animals. Yet there are times when those feelings of superiority curdle into something much more dangerous, when whole groups or nations come to believe they are morally, intellectually and even racially better than anyone else. Knowing where to draw the line between healthy jostling for position and abhorrent political manifesto was a key question for 20th Century philosophers and criminologists.
In 1924 two young men believed they were superior to everyone around them and decided they could commit any crime without consequence. Starting with arson and robbery, they soon graduated to the cold-blooded murder of a child… why… because they could, for the thrill. This excellent revival of Thrill Me at the Greenwich Theatre tells the story of those two men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb and how they came to commit a most heinous crime. Told in flashback, narrated by Nathan years later as he faces the parôle board, this story will be somewhat familiar as the inspiration for Rope the Patrick Hamilton play which Hitchcock later filmed, but here the focus is on the crime rather than the philosophy.
Jo Parsons as Nathan is our guide to events switching effortlessly between his apparently remorseful elder self and the exuberant younger man. The gravitas he adds to his voice in the 1958 sections and more confident demeanour keep the chronology clear for the audience, and he effortlessly moves between the two. As the young Nathan, Parsons portrays the over-enthusiasm and pain of first love as he pines for Richard, but there is always a finely performed hint of danger to his character, so from the beginning you wonder whether he is more complicit in the crimes than he’s leading us to believe.
Ben Woods’s Richard is frighteningly self-assured and initially disdainful of Nathan’s feelings. It’s a familiar trope, the confident object of affection, but Woods suggests the extremes of the character well particularly as his façade crumbles later on. It was interesting to see how much he needs Nathan’s attention and support to sustain his self-image. Yet at no point do you sympathise with Richard, and in the scene where he lures the unseen child into his car Woods is utterly chilling – lit from the back as if by headlights, entirely calm and utterly horrifying.
The stage design by James Turner is very simple just some chairs and only the props required, although behind the rear bookcase Turner has installed prison bars to remind the audience both of where this story ends, and to keep the morality straight should you begin to like either of the protagonists. The music is supplied by just a keyboard, played well by Tom Turner who used the songs and additional sounds to create atmosphere which director Guy Retallack emphasises the noir-ish feel – the flashback approach, lots of smoke effects and a blue tinge to the lights at the darker moments. It’s also a rarity to see a musical where, thankfully, no one claps at the end of the songs so the pace and increasing tension is maintained without interruption for its 95 minute running time.
Perhaps a little more dramatic emphasis could have been placed on the blood-signed contract, a crucial ‘no-turning-back’ moment which was slightly thrown-away and the ending came a little abruptly, yet this stripped-back production makes for exciting and galling viewing. Human superiority and the concept of the ‘Superman’ is having a moment in London theatre so perhaps this show needs to transfer down the river, allowing audiences to see Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National Theatre one night, followed by the dangerous consequences of that philosophy the next. Thrill Me, it certainly did.
Runs Until18 April | PhotoNick Rutter