LIZZIE - Southwark Playhouse Elephant
Swing and a miss
Though incarnated before the arrival of Six the Musical, it is impossible not to compare this production to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s hit, right down to the casting (mostly Six alumni) and holstered microphones and it does Lizzie no favours. Stellar vocal performances fail to paper over the peculiarly feeble plot and the often repetitive shouty score weakens the storytelling even further.
Lauren Drew leads the show as the titular Lizzie Borden, a woman accused of brutally murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892 - her motivations are unclear but are speculated during the first act of the show. Themes of abuse, loss and inheritance trigger her desperate actions as she seeks to secure a better life for herself and her older sister Emma. Though an infamous piece of true crime fascination in America, the tale has not pierced popular culture in the UK in quite the same way and sadly, the musical does a dire job of recounting the events coherently. By relying almost solely on the songs to carry the plot key details are lost to the ether and I left with more ambiguity about the case than I possessed when I arrived - somehow the creative team have turned what is a sensational and thrilling case that captured the imagination of the American press into a one note foggy haze.
The best things about this production by a country mile are the outstanding voices of the four cast members, Lauren Drew, Maiya Quansah-Breed, Shekinah McFarlane and Mairi Barclay. Drew’s vocals are unleashed, barely taking a moment to breathe as songs fly at her thick and fast - they do not disappoint. She is fierce and powerful and thrives in the ballads such as “This is Not Love” and “Will You Stay” paired beautifully with Quansah-Breed. McFarlane brings her powerhouse voice to the stage with “What the f*ck, now, Lizzie?” Which garners chuckles from around the audience but on the whole is underused. Whilst on paper the songs are exciting and adrenaline-inducing there is something distinctly tiresome about the lack of variety and pacing (particularly in act 1) - there is only so much character you can inject into the heavier songs and the performances suffer as a result, the cast unable to position the character in the music and therefore placing all focus on the undeniably incredible vocals that on the whole are devoid of personality. Running only at 100 minutes (including an interval) there is clear scope to steady the pace and find some desperately needed tonal intention.
Direction and choreography from William Whelton are fine but lack the precision to fully electrify the room, though, of course, the script is not his friend. The production struggles to fully unravel the ambitions of the players involved and the permanently absent figure of Lizzie’s father ensures that any stakes remain murky and underwhelming. Design (set and lighting) from Andrew Exeter is crisp and vibrant, punching colour through the haze - his designs integrate nicely with each other with light piercing the gaps between the barn slats. Expect plenty of strobe and dynamic beams to match the gig style of the production too.
Though the band sounds mighty and the vocal performances dazzle, too much drags this production downwards. Some sharpening of the narrative is vital for the musical’s progress because the pulsating talent nestled within the show is being drowned out by a cacophony of noise. This production needs more than power chords and leather boots to be a hit.
Running until 2nd December - Tickets
Photography - Pamela Raith Photography