Hope Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Kirsty Herrington
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done; She gave her father forty-one.”
Written by Sasha Wilson, Bury the Hatchet is a folktale meets musical with a difference and tells the story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman who, if the theories are to be believed, literally got away with murder.
In 1892 Andrew Borden and his wife Abby were brutally murdered in their family home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both receiving several blows from a hatchet (not an axe, as the rhyme suggests). The prime suspect in the murders was Andrew’s youngest daughter Lizzie, who was promptly arrested. But following an eventful trial the jury unanimously found her not guilty, due to the lack of forensics available at the time and because they didn’t believe a woman was capable of such a horrific crime. No one was ever charged for the double killing, and Lizzie lived the rest of her life as an outcast in Fall River, but to this day she remains the key suspect.
Performed by Wilson along with David Leopold and Joseph Prowen, who play a multitude of characters all connected to the tragic events, Bury the Hatchet brings the dark tale of the notorious murders to life through a combination of witty and clever storytelling, bluegrass music and the infamous nursery rhyme.
Through a series of brief (sometimes too brief) snippets, the audience learns more about Lizzie’s past, her strained relationship with her stepmother, the mysterious sickness that befell Andrew and Abby the day before their murders, and delves into possible motives for the killings. Interspersed with the grisly tale are pitch-perfect, haunting songs including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, ‘London Town’ and ‘Ain’t No Grave’, with the music and stories working well together.
The talented cast of three are enthusiastic and charismatic as they inject humour into the gruesome tale, breaking in and out of character throughout the performance. They pause at times, to question the direction of the show (as though it’s actually a rehearsal rather than the final performance) or interact with the audience but each time it’s for a purpose and with amusing results. The trio have great chemistry, playing off one another well, and are skilful musicians and singers. Their vocal harmonies are especially strong, with final song ‘Hard Times’ one of the highlights of the show, and the trio were particularly impressive performing in period dress on one of the hottest days of the year!
The set is simple in such an intimate space, but David Spence’s design does the trick with blood-splattered photos scattered over the floor, while a hatchet is hooked over a noose hanging ominously from the ceiling, reminding the audience of both the murder weapon and the punishment Lizzie faced if found guilty. The lighting design by Will Alder is equally effective in creating a dark atmosphere, notably when the murders take place and later when Lizzie is being interrogated by police.
The story of Lizzie Borden may be more than a century old, but it still piques the interest. Though it’s not essential to be familiar with the tale before you see the show, with a running time of just 70 minutes you’ll leave wanting to know more.
Engaging, hilarious, interesting and brilliantly performed, Bury the Hatchet is one of the most entertaining history lessons you’ll ever receive!