LIZZIE at Southwark Playhouse Elephant
“The score pulses like blood from a severed major artery”
As we wander into the dimly lit auditorium, there is a music box centre stage bathed in sepulchral light. It chimes like a nursery rhyme, but the tone has an ominous quality. This shadow of unease is darkened by the slowly rotating axe that replaces the ballet dancer that would normally ornament the music box. We feel that something is not quite right.
“Lizzie” – billed as a True Crime Rock Musical – tells the story of Lizzie Borden; a complex character who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in the late summer of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Written by Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, it bursts onto the stage with the force of a recklessly wielded hatchet. The score pulses like blood from a severed major artery. It is exciting and powerful. Yet we know that something is not quite right.
The problem lies in the source material. Lizzie Borden passed into American folklore via the widespread publicity her trial received. Inevitably this gives rise to speculation, half-truths and fabrication but the plain fact is that Borden was acquitted. The police investigation was a shambles and criticised for its lack of diligence, and Borden’s testimonies were suspect to say the least. Contradictory answers to questioning, changing alibis and dubious statements all failed to bring a conviction. Although a free woman, she still lived with the burden of being the prime suspect of a murder that was never solved.
“This is definitely quirky and sassy, and it will get the blood flowing freely”
William Whelton’s production, however, leaves us in no doubt. Lizzie Borden comes across as a pretty cold-blooded murderer. There are attempts to get the audience on her side, but we are left just as cold. Alleged sexual and emotional abuse are revealed. Oppression and fear are used in mitigation, yet we still never root for her. Lauren Drew handles the material exceedingly well, giving as much of a human face as possible to a soul-less and manipulative personality. And the frequent doses of comedy help the bitter taste go down. She is aided and abetted throughout by her sister Emma (played with gusto by Shekinah McFarlane), and by her winking, all-knowing maid, Bridget (Mairi Barclay). Maiya Quansah-Breed completes the quartet as Lizzie’s friend, lover, ally and accuser. A complex journey simultaneously driven and hindered by a romantic sub plot.
Yet the show manages to rise above its drawbacks on the strength of its bombast and spectacularity. Almost sung through, “Lizzie” is in effect a concept album thrust onto the stage. More Prog Rock than the Punk it advertises, it therefore has a richness buried deep into the hardcore backing. All four performers complement this with stunning vocals and electrifying commitment. Rachel Tansey’s costume places the cast in a nineteenth century New England backwater, which jars, until they regenerate into the modern rock chick look that the music dictates. Andrew Exeter’s lighting is impressive, mixing intimate, Gothic hues with epic stadium rock-concert flourishes. There is plenty to applaud, and the audience are certainly on their feet doing that in abundance.
Yet we are ultimately brought back to the nagging sensation that something is not quite right. The message is perturbing. The girl power mantel doesn’t sit well on a story that is angled to let a murderess walk away scot-free. The attempts at comedy don’t always sit comfortably either. We come away not sure how we are supposed to feel. But at least we feel something. Our heartbeats have been raised quite a few beats per minute. This is definitely quirky and sassy, and it will get the blood flowing freely. Not as freely, thankfully, as Lizzie Borden’s victims.
LIZZIE at Southwark Playhouse Elephant
Reviewed on 1st November 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Previously reviewed at Southwark Playhouse venues: