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Thrill Me

Stephen Dolginoff
Raphael Productions in association with Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

Guy Woolf and Sebastian Hill Credit: Lara Badiali
Sebastian Hill Credit: Lara Badiali
Guy Woolf and Sebastian Hill Credit: Lara Badiali

Stephen Dolginoff’s atmospheric musical Thrill Me at the Jermyn Street Theatre is a tight, riveting account of the relationship between the notorious criminals Leopold and Loeb who in 1924 murdered a fourteen-year-old boy simply for the thrill.

The show begins in 1958 when Nathan Leopold (Guy Woolf) appears before a parole board seeking his release from prison after more than three decades in prison. His plea to the board quickly shifts into dramatised scenes of earlier key moments in his relationship with Richard Loeb (Sebastian Hill) as their criminality moves from arson and robbery to the murder of Bobby Franks in Chicago.

In the 1920s, both Leopold and Loeb are young, well-educated members of rich families and they seem to be on route to promising careers. But they want more. Richard wants some additional thrill in his life. Nathan wants a sexual relationship with Richard.

There is always a knowing sexual undercurrent to their encounters, something which Richard exploits to persuade Nathan to join him in criminal activities.

Guy Woolf and Sebastian Hill give exceptionally good performances as the doomed friends. There is a very fine attention to detail, even to the way they look at each other.

Sebastian plays Richard as arrogant and superficially confident, always on parade, watching the way his words and posture impress Nathan. But, beneath it all, there is a terrible insecurity and it shows in the way at one point he clumsily handles a book and in his irritability when Nathan unexpectedly visits his house when he is not in the mood to mount his usual performance.

Guy gives Nathan an unusual depth and intensity. There are the expressions of pain and anxiety when he fears rejection by Richard. But there is also always a sense of restrained intelligence and occasionally a hint that the intelligence is quite calculating.

The music emphasises the romantic nature of their relationship. However, Stephen Dolginoff’s determination to create a torch song thriller does narrow down what the drama can achieve and risks at times washing the whole thing away with rhapsodic excess.

There might have been but isn’t any attempt to explore why Richard felt the need for such destructive thrills, or why the clearly, sharper, more intelligent Nathan was never able to lead the way in their relationship. That would have given us at least a better picture of the immediate relationship without even considering the context where homosexuality was illegal and extremely dangerous for two Jewish boys in a society riddled with anti-Semitism.

The songs and music are pleasant but they just underscore or emphasise the drama, they don’t take it anywhere. It is all about creating an atmosphere and that makes the music merely an accessory.

An illustration of the way the music can muscle in on the drama is in the scene that follows Nathan and Richard making plans to kill a child. Their planning discussion is shocking enough. Why follow it up with Richard singing the song "Roadster" to the unseen youth he is trying to tempt into his car?

The music is suitably moody to remind us that this is a disturbing event and the lyrics such as "feel the power of my engine" fairly banal. Even love-struck Nathan might be reluctant to get into the car after hearing it. But otherwise, it adds nothing to the drama except perhaps to edge it towards melodrama.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a very watchable thriller which didn’t for a moment lose my attention. The director Paul Glaser and the theatre company should be congratulated on creating such an enjoyable event. But its strength is the drama and its performance.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna