Stephen Dolginoff’s musical dramatisation of the story of so-called “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb has been produced over 200 times in 22 countries since its opening off-Broadway in 2005. The horrible appeal of such stories is evident: dark, unsettling, gripping tales of narcissism, passion and the underlying and enduring enigma of “why”. What led these two smart young men from wealthy Chicago families, both with ambitions to go into the law, to kidnap 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, kill him, hide the body then attempt to extort money from his parents? The case was dubbed “The Crime of the Century” and went on to be used as the basis for several movies including Rope, Murder By Numbers and Compulsion.
Dolginoff’s two-hander focuses on the twisted sexual dynamic between the two, as Leopold sets out his case for parole after 34 years incarcerated, telling his story in flashback. He depicts himself as totally consumed by his infatuation for Loeb, who manipulates and abuses him. Leopold recognises Loeb’s distain but is determined that they should spend their lives together. For Loeb, sex is just a means to get Leopold to take part in his criminal actions all the while proclaiming them both to be Nietzsche’s “superior beings” who could never be caught.
Bart Lambert (Leopold) and Jack Reitman (Loeb) are terrific as the two killers and have a very believable chemistry. Lambert shows Leopold as desperate and vulnerable, creeping around and insinuating himself into Loeb’s life. He brings a grim physicality to Leopold, all twisted hands and desperate pleading features which occasionally light up when Loeb gives him a morsel of attention. He is entirely believable as the young student and the prematurely aged convict as he pleads for parole. Loeb is played by Reitman as dark and brooding, a narcissistic psychopath who needs to find sexual excitement in increasingly serious criminal acts, culminating in murder.
Matthew Parker’s direction is nuanced and taut, bringing out a tense chemistry in the two actors. The songs in the show are well placed, advancing the narrative, and are excellently sung by the two leads, with great harmonies, backed by the fabulous piano of Benjamin McQuigg. McQuigg also provides the incidental, atmospheric background throughout, as the tale hurtles towards the horrific scene of the kidnap of Franks and his murder. Alongside the piano, Rachael Ryan’s set, Simon Arrowsmith’s sound design and Chris McDonnell’s lighting are instrumental in creating the unsettling nature of the piece with the Jermyn Street’s small performance area used to full effect. Boxes and benches become courthouses, bedrooms, and cars – a very clever use of a few simple props.
As the voice-over at the beginning says to Leopold, we know what happened, but the “why” is still unclear. This challenging piece gives a disturbing answer from Leopold’s perspective. Maybe Loeb would have told it differently. Dolginoff certainly gives a hint that there was more to Loeb than the cold psychopath he’s largely presented as. It’s an intriguing coda that leaves the audience feeling there’s still more to be learned about this grim case.
Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story is on at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5th February. Tickets are available from: https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/thrill-me/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 19th January 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★