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Review: Thrill Me

The Leopold & Loeb story

Whether its Burke and Hare, Bonnie and Clyde, or Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett, everyone loves a murderous duo. Stephen Dolginoff's 2003 musical introduces us to two more: Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

Framed through a conversation between an aged Leopold and his parole officers (omnipotently voiced offstage by Emma Klar and Will Hale), the story details the apparently motiveless murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks. His attackers are two wealthy 19 year old boys who, seduced by their own Nietzschean fantasy, believe themselves to be infallible. After pulling off what they believe to be a perfect crime, they breathlessly sing "we're both superior to all".

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America's finest.

For such gruesome subject matter, this chamber musical has a surprisingly light touch. Punctuated by moments of levity, it refuses to milk the murder itself for any potential titillation. Instead, all the drama springs from the fraught and explosive relationship between the two murderers.

And what a compelling dynamic. On stage, Alex Hancok (Leopold) and Joseph Folley (Loeb) practically bubble with erotic chemistry. Loeb is the more obviously criminally disturbed of the two – having already developed a penchant for arson – and seems to pull along Leopold on a leash of sexual obsession. According to our narrator at least, he is blameless, merely a prisoner of his own lust.

Folley does look the part of a cold-hearted-killer. Sporting a devilish grin and genuinely sinister eyebrows, he languidly walks across stage with the practised insincerity that comes with inordinate privilege. His willowy frame is kitted out as if in a St John's fever dream, complete with straw hat, suspenders and dickie bow.

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So posh…

In contrast, Hancok wears a more austere waistcoat, a simple shirt and large glasses. He is certainly not how you would picture a cold-hearted murderer.

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Thoughtful or sinister?

And yet there are signs Leopold is less powerless than he pretends. He is controlling, manipulative and jealous, and in one rather disturbing scene, attempts to coerce the clearly distressed Loeb into sex. Louise Dai deserves applause for this nuanced direction, which must have been hard on all to play. This scene, and others like it, intelligently cast both men in shades of grey, preventing Leopold from coming across as the saint to Leob’s sinner.

Even in their duets, it is clear they they are more evenly matched. Their harmonies feel like sonic sparring, fighting for supremacy even as they sing in (really impressive) harmony.

The musical is nicely pacy until the last twenty minutes, when the emotional fall-out from the crime does start to feel a little repetitive. But this is a minor complaint in a production that felt genuinely fresh and original.


Photography by Jay Chiswick