Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Jermyn Street Theatre
This production of Thrill Me was originally mounted in 2019 at the Hope Theatre when its director Matthew Parker was its Artistic Director and now fits beautifully into this West End venue to open its Outsiders Season of plays.
It is the story of what was at the time described as “the crime of the century” when two graduate students from the University of Chicago, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks.
The killers were both academically outstanding and from rich Jewish families. Their reading of Nietzsche had convinced them that they were “Supermen” to whom the laws and morality of ordinary humans were not applicable.
Dolginoff, who is responsible for book, music and lyrics, frames his play as an interview in which Nathan Leopold (Bart Lambert) faces a parole board (the last of several) in 1958, 34 years after they murdered the schoolboy, which is asking him why they killed him. This becomes Leopold’s version of events, acted out with Jack Reitman as Loeb, told as it were in flashback.
When Lambert as the middle-aged prisoner sheds his prison garb, his voice becomes immediately more youthful as he welcomes his reunion with Loeb, an egocentric nineteen-year-old who demands excitement from life and finds it by stealing from students and arson. Leopold has been besotted with Loeb since their schooldays and now gains his involvement as both assistant and witness in their crimes by demanding compliance in return for continuing their homosexual relations. Loeb gets his thrills from his risky antisocial behaviour, Leopold’s are more obviously physical, his fingers lustfully creep towards Loeb’s body, though not daring to touch until his controller initiates action.
Dialogue moves seamlessly into rhymed lyrics and song as feelings are heightened. Whether in their duetting demand of “Thrill Me!”, Leopold’s “Everyone wants Richard (but not the way I do)” or Loeb’s tantalising “Roadster” as he lures young Bobby into their car, these aren’t the numbers of a traditional musical but a setting that feels like the obsessive repetition of the same insistent theme whilst musical director Benjamin McQuigg plays the through-written piano score which relentlessly underpins the action and sustains the tension.
The killers set fire to a warehouse, Loeb demanding Leopold pour on more petrol, Chris McDonnell’s lighting vividly representing the conflagration they have sex by, then, to satisfy Loeb's need for more extreme excitement, planning and committing the murder and the conflict between them as the police uncover the clues to their identity and they face investigation.
Bart Lambert and Jack Reitman make this fatal relationship real, their need of each other believable: Leopold fixated on Loeb and Loeb not just relishing the control he can exercise over the other but needing the admiration he offers.
Rachael Ryan’s design offers shelving and storage putting props to hand, photographs and press cuttings and papers pinned to the walls that suggest both gloating on reports of their “exploits” and a police incident room. Industrial metal lights overhead hint at interrogation room and warehouse and their localised focus becomes part of the lighting plan, while a network of red threads above them echoes both incident room and bloodshed. The piano and pianist merge into this clutter and even the numerous boxes that, as in so many studio shows, make up the furniture become part of the action. Rather than hold things up, when the actors frantically push them into place to change scene, they, like the flickering lights and pounding piano, add to the energy and tighten the tension.
Powerful performances and carefully controlled staging make this a production that grips the attention for every one of its 80 minutes (there isn’t an interval). It may leave you wondering who controls whom. Thrill Me kicks off the new season in style and is highly recommended.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton