Saturday 13 April 2019

13/04/19: A Murder Has Been Arranged, Finchley Methodist Church Hall

It’s 1930 and Sir Charles Jasper plans to celebrate his birthday on the stage of a “haunted” theatre. He is set to inherit two million pounds at 11 p.m. – the exact moment he turns 40 – but that inheritance is cast into doubt by the unexpected arrival of his rather odd nephew and a series of deeply strange goings on...

Despite the far-fetched premise of Emlyn Williams’ supernatural drama, and a rather too lengthy running time, the Guild Players put on a strong performance. Established favourites Caroline Knell and Louisa Agamemnos were as reliably watchable as ever, and it was also good to see the return of Rachel Kaden and Sean Roberts from the 2018 triumph that was Widdershins.

The period jazz music played during the interval was a nice touch, as were the well-judged costumes.

In the second half, the play became increasingly multilayered, with references to amateur dramatics(!) and Macbeth being made within the clever theatre-within-a-theatre setting.

As usual, the Finchley Methodist Church Hall had the disadvantage of outside traffic noise – a reminder that it’s worth being in the first couple of rows to have a chance of catching all the dialogue. Despite that, and a complicated narrative, the actors never stumbled.

Thursday 4 April 2019

04/04/19: Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Hope Theatre, Islington

It’s Chicago in 1924 and two school friends are reunited. Nathan Leopold (Bart Lambert) is obsessively in love with Richard Loeb (Jack Reitman) and wants to resume their previous affair, but Richard has changed. Inspired and seemingly possessed by the controversial writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he exploits Nathan’s devotion in return for making him an accomplice in a series of crimes. Having signed a contract in blood, their pursuit of the ‘Ubermensch’ ideal inevitably leads the pair beyond arson and petty burglary and into more disturbing and challenging transgressions. They gain notoriety as the Thrill Killers – at a considerable cost...

Directed by Matthew Parker, the Hope Theatre’s production of Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 true-crime musical is stunning. Narrated in flashbacks during a parole hearing 34 years later, it maintains an incredibly high level of drama – considerably aided by the sensitive and dynamic piano playing of Musical Director Tim Shaw. It helps that the source material – both the script and songwriting – is so consistently strong. When the dialogue stops and the singing begins in lesser musicals, it can often seem like filler. In Thrill Me, every song carries the narrative forwards and sharpens the focus on the personalities and motivations of the two men. Lambert and Reitman are note-perfect throughout – quite some feat given the sheer number of lines and lyrics they have to deliver across the 80-minute performance.

There are a couple of fairly major plot twists, which means that the show continues to surprise you just when you think you’ve worked out how it will unfold. There’s real intensity conveyed, both in the vividness of Nathan’s feelings for the man he worships and in Richard’s fixation on amoral self-transformation.

Subtle lighting helps to build the atmosphere, particularly in the scene in which they set an abandoned warehouse ablaze – a perfect visual metaphor of their fiery passions. Creative use is also made of recorded voices (those of Dewi Hughes and Bryan Pilkington) and sound effects, providing a three-dimensional framework that instils the action with even more realism.

The play examines the psychology of egos, ethics and manipulative behaviour as well as tackling bigger themes of society and individualism. Primarily, it asks the question: what would you do for love? As it explores those extremes you find yourself simultaneously appalled and captivated by these two characters, whose escalating predicament is all the more chilling for being based on a true story.