Thrill Me

Stephen Dolginoff
Richard Williamson and CliMar Productions in association with Greenwich Theatre
Greenwich Theatre

Ben Woods as Richard Loeb and Jo Parsons as Nathan Leopold Credit: Nick Rutter
Jo Parsons as Nathan Leopold and Ben Woods as Richard Loeb Credit: Nick Rutter
Jo Parsons as Nathan Leopold and Ben Woods as Richard Loeb Credit: Nick Rutter

This dramatically disturbing musical is based on the notorious 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by two wealthy Chicago University students: Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. It had already been source material for several plays and films, including Patrick Hamilton’s Rope and Compulsion, when this treatment with book, lyrics and music all written by Stephen Dolginoff, was first staged in 2003.

This production was first mounted in 2011 to great success. Now it is back, starting a new tour, with Jo Parsons, who played Loeb previously, now playing Leopold, and Ben Woods as Loeb. Their powerful performances and Guy Retallack’s direction grip the audience for the whole eighty minutes it plays, uninterrupted by any interval.

This is Nathan Leopold’s version of the story, as told to a parole board in 1958, flashing back to act out events 24 years earlier. “Why?” ask the parole board (voices only, this show is a tight two-hander) and that becomes Nathan’s first number and “Thrill Me” is his answer.

For Richard Loeb it is the thrill of defying his father, law and society; for Nathan the thrill of sexual gratification. Already arrogant in his privileged moneyed family, dipping into Nietzsche makes Richard see himself as a Superman. Languidly lounging with an elegant cigarette he seems to expect adoration.

Nathan has been in his thrall since they were schoolboys. “Everyone wants Richard” he sings “but not the way I do”. Sexual need makes him put up with every put-down and Richard knows just how to feed that desire to get him to comply with his needs, for it seems he does have them.

“You don’t need my help breaking the law,” declares Nathan. “Yes I do. I snarl up without you,” admits Richard. Does he mean it? Or is it just that he has to have someone to do the things that bore him and needs an accomplice, so someone is there to acknowledge his achievement?

Dolginoff’s script doesn’t try to present any deep explanations, but these performers deliver a strong sense of dependence. Ben Wood’s willowy Richard isn’t presented as a modern-day gay turn-on but the passion of his kisses, when he condescends to give them, hint at a schooldays seduction that got Nathan hooked.

It is this relationship, rather than arson and burglary, that hold the attention until Loeb’s plans turn to murder and the enormity of what they are doing reaches a cold, calculating climax in “Roadster”, a solo in which Richard coaxes the audience, standing in for young Bobby, to get in his car. After that, their plans start to unravel, though Nathan Leopold puts his own gloss on them.

With pretty well through-composed music, the numbers are a continuous part of the story, not stand-alone songs. The music, with its familiar sounding cadences, maintains a consistent style. Though the idiom is different, it is used operatically to sustain tension and underline the dark world of this duo.

James Turner’s minimalist design, with the suggestion of prison bars at the rear and a skeleton wall to hint at doorways and provide support for props, is a dark background to Richard Williamson’s atmospheric lighting. Just glimpsed in the shadows upstage is pianist and musical director Tom Turner whose performance matches those of the actors playing out their blood-signed pact.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton