Arts Theatre, London – 3 December 2016
Guest reviewer: Rosalind Freeborn
From the start there is an atmosphere of threat and intrigue as the show’s narrator sashay’s towards the audience and informs us that ‘someone’s gonna die’. We then meet the main protagonists of this drama set in contemporary New York.
Sara is freewheeling but needy; she falls for Tom who is sexy but untrustworthy. With clever use of minimal props and the stage’s revolve, we watch the trajectory of a relationship play out through song and choreography … until it runs its course and ends badly. Sara is heartbroken, turns to the bottle and stumbles, literally, into Michael who turns out to be the perfect man; he is a poet, falls for her, becomes a caring husband and father who subjugated his creativity to get a good job, earn serious money to give his family the ‘uptown life’. So far so good, but you can tell from the way our narrator teases us that there will soon be trouble in paradise.
Indeed, Sara becomes bored of marriage and motherhood and makes contact with Tom. An affair ensues (references to French films of passion, amuse), the affair is discovered and there is violence. Indeed, someone dies….. But there is a delicious and witty twist to this tale which I won’t spoil.
So, you might think, an everyday story of love, betrayal and vengeance. Can this be the stuff of a rock musical – yes, absolutely. The Murder Ballad has been very cleverly written and composed by Julia Jordan, who conceived the idea and produced the book and lyrics, and Juliana Nash who wrote the score and lyrics. In the hands of four extremely experienced and talented players this deceptively simple piece of theatre takes the story of the crime of passion into new realms.
Kerry Ellis, who hardly leaves the stage throughout the show, creates a magnificently believable character and we root for her, despite her faults. The piece is entirely sung-through and she gives impressive light and shade to the songs. Ramin Karimloo plays Tom, the smouldering conqueror of New York’s women, who loves and longs for Sara, ‘the one who got away’. And Norman Bowman as Michael presents his character with sincerity – likening their opposite characters to ‘sugar cubes and rock salt’, and you believe his deep hurt at the discovery of his wife’s infidelity. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt makes a stunning narrator, dressed in belted gumshoe-style coat, as she prowls the stage, blowing smoke from a cigarette, commenting on the action and occasionally slips into other roles.
Praise must also be given to the very tight band, ably directed by Sean Green on keyboards with raunchy guitar sounds from Daniel Francis Owen, contrasting mandolin from Oliver Seymour-Marsh and a strong, pacey beat from Billy Stookes on drums. We don’t see the band all the time; we can see their shadows at the back of the stage behind paper screens but when the impact of music demands it they spill out of the background onto the stage and become part of the action.
Photo Credit Marc Brenner
Julia Jordan describes in the programme how she ‘loves murder mysteries and popular music’. When she was given an opportunity to develop original material at a New Dramatist’s Workshop she contacted her friend and collaborator Juliana Nash. The idea for this musical had to be figured out in 30 minutes and then developed with a company of actors.
A rousing finale, full of vim and verve lifts the play away from the darker side of the story and returns to the ‘ballad’ aspect of the tale with a high energy, foot-tapping routine.
Hats off to director Sam Yates for taking this original material and making it into such a polished and engaging show. This very cool show is sophisticated, sassy and brilliantly performed.
Murder Ballad, a new musical