London’s Southwark Playhouse is currently playing host to a riveting and unapologetically fierce production of ‘LIZZIE’, the true crime rock punk musical. This fresh and dynamic production of the first UK staging, presented by the accomplished team at Hope Mill Theatre, is edgy, bold, and nothing short of brilliant. It brings a thrilling blend of music, drama, and history to the stage, redefining the boundaries of what a musical can be, and quite frankly goes toe-to-toe with some of the other similar historical productions that are currently playing in the West End and round the globe.
Set in the backdrop of the infamous Lizzie Borden murders in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, ‘LIZZIE’ weaves a gripping narrative that blends fact, fiction, legend, and female sass, into an intoxicating melting pot of rock. The four-woman, powerhouse cast brings to the stage the real-life characters of Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, their devious maid Bridget, and the enigmatic neighbour Alice. Directed by William Whelton and featuring a powerful rock score by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, ‘LIZZIE’ pushes the boundaries of conventional musical theatre to create a memorable and haunting experience.
At the heart of this production is the remarkable Lauren Drew, who takes on the title role of Lizzie Borden. Drew’s performance is nothing short of electric. She captivates the audience with her powerful voice and unbridled emotional intensity, channelling Lizzie’s inner turmoil and rage. Whether she’s belting out songs like “This Is Not Love” or delivering a more tender, introspective moment in “Will You Stay?”, Drew’s vocal prowess and emotional depth are awe-inspiring. Her portrayal of Lizzie is simultaneously sympathetic and chilling, making the audience question the nature of justice and retribution. Despite the nature of her character, Drew also manages to draw the audience to her side with the light and shade of her performance, making Lizzie a complex and captivating figure.
Maiya Quansah-Breed, who portrays Alice, is a strong presence on the stage. Her portrayal of the enigmatic love interest and confidante to Lizzie adds depth to the production, and her chemistry with Drew is palpable. Quansah-Breed’s performance adds a layer of emotional complexity to the show, contributing to the audience’s emotional engagement, some light amongst the darker characters.
Shekinah McFarlane, who plays Emma Borden, is exceptionally talented, with strong, breath-taking vocals. She embodies the devoted sister torn between loyalty to her family and her sister’s potential guilt. McFarlane’s powerful performance adds emotional weight to the story and enriches the sibling dynamics at the heart of the narrative.
However, the outstanding star of the show is Mairi Barclay, in the role of Bridget, not only does she impress with her vocal talents, but also holds impeccable comic timing. Her character, with its brilliant and funny characterization, steals the show throughout, and Barclay’s presence and humour add a delightful contrast to the dark and intense moments of the production, providing levity and entertainment. A masterclass in what it means to be a character performer.
The set and lighting design, by Andrew Exeter effectively transports the audience to the oppressive and repressive atmosphere of the Borden household. The wood, stark furnishings, and ominous, but beautiful lighting design choice is especially effective in the more suspenseful and sinister scenes. Simple staging, but an evocative backdrop for the production and sets up perfectly the use of video graphics and projections, masterfully crafted by Video Designer Dan Light, which complement the modern feel of the production and the edgy rock vibe. These visual elements add a contemporary dimension to the storytelling, immersing the audience in the characters’ minds and the dark, mysterious world they inhabit. Light’s work truly enhances the show, creating a multi-sensory experience that leaves a lasting impact.
‘LIZZIE’ isn’t just a musical; it’s a whole immersive experience that challenges preconceived notions of morality and justice while delivering a powerful message about the enduring fight for freedom, girl power, and self-discovery. On every level, this production is a total triumph, and William Whelton’s direction and choreography are superb, pushing boundaries, and bringing out the best in the cast and the material. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt’s outstanding music, book, and lyrics are the driving force behind this rock opera, infusing it with power, emotion, and unforgettable melodies. If you didn’t already know the score, it is guaranteed you will have downloaded it to your device before you get home from the theatre!
‘LIZZIE’ runs at Southwark Playhouse until 2nd December, before completing its UK tour. Don’t miss the chance to witness this mesmerizing tale and be part of the growing hype. Tickets are available here: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/lizzie
Reviewer: Alan Stuart Malin
Reviewed: 1st November 2023
North West End UK Rating: