Whilst Kevin Spacey is busy thrilling audiences with his portrayal of lawyer Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic, Thrill Me comes to the Greenwich Theatre to tell the story of Leopold and Loeb – two Chicago students whom Darrow defended after they committed “the crime of the century”. It’s a musical adaptation from Stephen Dolginoff that’s quietly brooding, if not as thrilling as the title might suggest.
The plot is an intriguing one. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were two law students at the University of Chicago who, in 1924, murdered a fourteen year old boy. Why? To display their intellectual superiority by committing the perfect crime. Loeb, in particular, is here portrayed as a particularly loathsome character: a pyromaniac for whom petty crimes aren’t enough. He easily seduces the submissive Leopold and a secret romance ensues, escalating towards the inevitable and spurred on by a secret that proves Leopold isn’t quite the innocent man he seems.
It’s testament to the performances of Jo Parsons (Leopold) and Ben Woods (Loeb) that the two murderers are compelling: Parsons wide-eyed and naïve, Woods suave and charming. Together, their voices blend beautifully. Yet in uncovering the mystery behind these characters, Dolginoff relies too heavily on cliché. The ‘what I did for love’ theme feels like a let-down after an initially gripping story, whilst the lyrics are brimming with clunky rhymes. For all the narrative’s psychosexual politics and homoeroticism, it doesn’t quite bristle with chilling tension as it should and the frequent references to the philosopher Nietzsche (mainly his championing of the individual) are not fully explored.
Much of this criticism stems from the music, which has a tendency to pause the drama and drag out what could have been a tight drama. Performed solely on piano by Tom Turner, it’s certainly hypnotic as it churns like clockwork, but much of the melody is simply dialogue set to music and never builds towards a dramatic crescendo. The most successful moments of the show are those without music, where the actors are given the space to breathe and really get to grips with the characters. Perhaps Thrill Me would’ve worked better instead as a play with incidental music.
James Turner’s simple set design, paired with some stark lighting from Richard Williamson, provides a cage-like backdrop on which the story plays out, gradually creeping up on the audience. The two actors are eminently watchable, seductively lit in spotlight as cigarette smoke curls around them. The noir style – the show’s tone, lighting and mesmeric music – is certainly befitting of the story, but the individual elements never quite come together into the thriller this should be.
Watch: Thrill Me runs at the Greenwich Theatre until 18th April.
Photos: Nick Rutter