"Mesmerisingly sinister thriller in an Intensely intimate theatre”
In the words of Forrest Gump’s mama, “fringe theatre is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”. Sometimes that’s the frisson that drives me to accept invitations to London pub theatres, but often it’s what puts me off as a time-poor person unable to gamble on watching something I might not connect with. However, to me, Thrill Me at the Hope is what fringe theatre should be about. It provides the intimacy of a very small and very black theatrical space with exceptional quality performance. And, on this occasion, it comes with a real twist in the tale that I can honestly say I never saw coming.
On the surface it’s a musical that retells the story of the disturbingly symbiotic relationship of two young men who seal their commitment to fulfil each other’s needs in blood – in more than one way. For Nathan Leopold, exquisitely played by the very talented Bart Lambert, who provides the narrative from his parole board hearing in Joliet Prison, Chicago, 1958, his desire is obsessive sexual gratification. For Jack Reitman’s overtly psychopathic Richard Loeb, the attraction is purely practical, as he needs Leopold to assist him in carrying out his increasingly more depraved crimes. Musically, it is pitched just right, as the Hope is truly tiny and at times I could easily have touched either or both performers, so it was crucial that the singing was quite subtle and realistically delivered. The close proximity to the actors worked extremely well in this production, and I was mesmerised for the entire show, which runs around 80 minutes straight through. Tim Shaw’s piano accompaniment to the songs was well in keeping with the action and added perfectly timed nuances throughout which heightened the chilling development of Loeb’s thirst for murder followed by increased panic as the men realise the immanence of their arrest and incarceration.
In terms of staging, the effects created by a few boxes moved around the stage by the actors was simple and truly inspired. I also liked the sepia-tinged photographs on all four walls and the way the space created the atmosphere of being in an interview room at an old-fashioned police station or prison, as was the intention of designer Rachael Ryan. The only slightly incongruous aspect for me was Lambert’s accent, which weirdly reminded me of the late great Scottish actor Alastair Sim. With accent coach Dewi Hughes on board, perhaps this can be worked on, if unintentional.
The Hope is one of my favourite pub theatres. This is primarily due to the warm welcome from the front of house team, led on press night by the inimitable Luke Adamson, as well as the smiley and professional bar staff. Nevertheless, spending an evening at the fringe must live or die by what’s on the stage and although Thrill Me is all about death – of murder in and out of prison – this show is certainly alive and kicking.
Photography credit: lhphotoshots
Thrill me: the Leopold & Loeb story
Book, music and Lyrics – Stephen Dolginoff
Producer – Benjamin Alborough for the Hope Theatre
Director – Matthew Parker
Musical director – Tim Shaw
Designer – Rachael Ryan
Lighting designer – Chris McDonnell
Sound designer – Simon Arrowsmith
Stage manager – Emily Walters
Assistant director – Toby Hampton
Reviewer Deborah Jeffries is a PhD Researcher at the University of East London and Rose Bruford College. Her thesis is entitled ‘Legitimising the Victorian Music Hall’, and it contests the notion of legitimate versus illegitimate theatre. It also investigates theatre architecture, purpose and licensing. She has worked for Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s - two of the UK’s four operational Victorian music halls, as well as the more modern incarnation, Brick Lane Music Hall. Her MA in Drama from Goldsmiths explores the difference between music hall and variety theatre, and the place of each genre in modern popular culture. She has reviewed music and theatre across the UK for over 30 years.