Thursday, September 28

LIZZIE The Musical – Hope Mill Theatre

On a late Summer Sunday afternoon when the sun had finally decided to grace Manchester with its presence, I forfeit the chance of barbeques with friends (or beers in the pub garden) to attend the UK rebirth of ‘Lizzie’, billed as ‘A True Crime Rock Musical’. Some two hours later, I emerged blinking into the light having witnessed a ‘tour de force’ of musical theatre with powerhouse performances and cracking choreography. A production which will stay with me for a very long time, I definitely made the right decision.

‘Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.’

This nursery rhyme is as well known to American children as ‘Ring a Roses’ or ‘Three Blind Mice’ is to their British counterparts, and it neatly encapsulates the horrific true crime drama that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts in August 1892 that forms the basis of our story. Lizzie Borden (Lauren Drew) and her sister Emma (Shekinah McFarlane) live with their father, who has remarried following the death of their mother. The atmosphere in the house is heavy and oppressive, both the girls feel unwanted by their stepmother and Lizzie is the victim of sexual abuse from her father, a possible motive for the horrific murders that forms the basis of the verse. In the real-life version of events Lizzie was found ‘Not Guilty’ of the murders and lived for over thirty years after the events portrayed, but our musical leaves no doubt as to what it thinks occurred, using this story and the subsequent ‘first celebrity trial’ as a vehicle to show women wielding power in a patriarchal society and gaining agency in their lives.

Lauren Drew as Lizzie in LIZZIE The Musical – Pamela Raith Photography

The bare Victorian brick of Hope Mill Theatre forms the backdrop for the story of bloody murder, pigeons in the vaulted wooden ceiling and large wooden barn doors the only set additions needed by Andrew Exeter (Set & Lighting Design), white spotlights and red side lighting complete the required milieu perfectly. Director and Choreographer William Whelton utilises the small stage of the intimate theatre brilliantly. Having seen a dozen people with full orchestra and a Hollywood staircase in the same space (Mame), I am constantly amazed at the creativity employed to constantly and believably reinvent for each new production. This time Whelton only has four cast members to work with but each decision he has made was carefully thought through, with tight choreography moving between the balletic and music videos stylings seamlessly. Backed by a four-piece band who managed to make Hope Mill sound like Wembley Arena, the entire production oozed style and chic.

Given the intimacy of the space the success of the production was heavily reliant on the performance of the cast, and with songs being to the fore it played to the strengths of the actors involved. Mairi Barclay, in the role of the maid Bridget, acted as a semi chorus (The House Of Borden) and delivered most of the comedy in the show. Her acidic asides and knowing comments punctured the tension and gave the audience permission to find the humour in a piece that could otherwise have felt darkly heavy. McFarlane managed to give Emma humanity, her powerful vocals (Sweet Little Sister) perfectly complimenting the rock score whilst still giving the lyrics the pathos and meaning necessary to carry the story forward. Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed) the neighbour (and lover) of Lizzie showed delicacy and tenderness when developing the torn nature of a character forced to choose between telling the truth and protecting her lover (Will You Stay? Will You Lie?) but was still able to rock out when required. Lauren Drew was simply mesmerising in her role as the eponymous Lizzie, thrown immediately in the deep end with her opening song (This Is Not Love), a cry for help from a young girl suffering sexual abuse, she simultaneously pulled at our heartstrings whilst hinting at the steel beneath. We watch her motives develop (Why Are All These Heads Off?), culminating in a bloodbath to conclude the first act, when she reveals her full power and strength in a manner reminiscent of ‘Carrie -The Musical’, complete with blood and black bodice. The metamorphosis continues into the second half when her winsome act convinces a court of her innocence, despite her story being scarcely believable (Questions, Questions) and she was fully assured in all the facets of this complex character.

The Company of LIZZIE The Musical – Pamela Raith Photography

The sung through structure allows the songs to develop the storyline without recourse to clunky exposition and allows only four characters to believably tell the story, the parents only appear as shrouded corpses lying inert on the stage and the courtroom is nowhere to be seen, men are wholly absent, and this is women telling the story from their perspective and controlling the historical narrative. The show was originally performed in 2009 and sits in the same space as later productions such as Spring Awakening and Heathers, which blend punk rock sensibilities with comedy whilst seeking to explore more serious themes such as murder and abuse. It also displays a link in its story of female empowerment with the phenomenon that is ‘SIX’, a lineage that Whelton accentuates in this production with the use of hand-held microphones and a singalong ending which brought the whooping audience to its feet, on this occasion myself included!

There has been a real sea change in the scope of subjects that musical theatre has sought to portray over the last decade, Lizzie was at the forefront of this revolution, so it is exciting to see a brave new staging that combines serious themes with superb musicality whilst not being afraid to bring humour to the mix. Once again Hope Mill has proved that this small Manchester theatre can compete with anyone in producing innovative and interesting musical theatre. A triumph that deserves to be rewarded.

Verdict: The real crime would be to miss it, ‘Lizzie’ is definitely ‘All Killer And No Filler’. See this show!!

Playing until 30th September,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 3rd September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.