Lizzie at Southwark Playhouse – The Elephant

Lizzie is a rock musical which tells the story of Lizzie Borden. The show focuses on Lizzie, her older sister Emma, her neighbour and love interest Alice and her maid Bridget. In 1892 Lizzie is accused of murdering her father and step-mother…with an axe and overnight she becomes the centre of a media storm and an American killing legend.

The show doesn’t hold back from tackling big themes, whilst we are left in no doubt as to who the killer was, in this version Lizzie is painted as a victim of child sexual abuse which helps the audience understand her suffering. We also are faced with themes of homosexuality, family and class which are all dealt with head on and in a varying manner, from humour, to shock but each as successful as the last. The fateful father and step-mother remain as figments in our imagination, which works well, allowing us to focus on Lizzie’s reaction to them.

A huge part of the show is the heavy rock score by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The dialogue is brief but the score is often blistering, loud and unforgiving. From the second number in ‘House of Boden’ I was trying to refrain myself from joining in with the head banging. The numbers that weren’t full throttle rock contrasted perfectly with the rest of the score, standing out for their simplicity and beautiful melody. ‘This is not love,’ is one such number which tells of the sexualised relationship between Lizzie and her father. There was the odd moment where you began to question as to just if another relentless number was needed but on the whole the pace was swift and the show moved on at a good pace, meaning some of these moments were forgiven.

To do the score justice you need women with powerhouse vocals, luckily this cast had 4 women with astonishing voices. Lauren Drew took on the role of Lizzie and she struck a balance of innocence and with a haunted edge yet deranged and murderous. By the end of the show she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand and the nuances of her performance, with a raised eyebrow or shift in her gaze worked perforectly for a more intimate setting like Southwark Playhouse.

Maiya Quansah-Breed plays Alice and gives the audience an Alice that clearly dotes on Lizzie. She also oozed sensuality and her number “If You Knew” was a real highlight of the show a tender moment for pause sandwiched between the rock and the rage. Mairi Barclay plays Alice who provides some humor to the story and almost straddles the role of narrator. She shoots the audience knowing looks as if she is letting the audience in on her secrets. Finally Shekinah McFarlane is Emma has a commanding stage presence. Her character is possibly the least developed but this is through no fault of McFarlane but rather the writing. Each performer is incredibly talented in her own right and whilst they blend well on stage together part of the strength of the show is their unique vocal talents.

The staging of the show is almost concert like in nature however at times I would have liked them to lean into this a bit more. The show flicked between the concert style and a more traditional musical style on other occasions but there were points when this hybrid style was a little jarring. For example throughout the show they wore very traditional costumes save for huge boots, this remains until the ‘megamix’ at the end where the women come out in full punk rock attire. Whilst I adored the looks it made little sense to wait for the megamix for such a style shake up. There were also moments where hand held mics were used, pulled out of their mic waist belts yet there seems to be no rationale as to why or when they were used.

The set, designed by Andrew Exeter is kept simple, reminiscent of the Borden’s barn with a back central door that opens to reveal vital moments of the show. Video, designed by Dan Light projects onto the barn, helping shift the mood quickly and effectively as well as assisting some of the more dramatic effects needed in the show.

Lizzie is not a show for the feint hearted and nor would you expect it to be when you combine ‘true crime’ with rock musical theatre but it is a show that is a lot of fun to watch and even more so, listen too.

Lizzie is on at Southwark Playhouse until the 2nd December. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Six, Calendar Girls and Cabaret.

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