Arts Theatre, London – until 3 December 2016
In yet another example of exciting new writing to appear in London, Murder Ballad opens at the Arts Theatre following its original brief run off-Broadway. This first collaboration between Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash sees the show’s female writers choose the classical plot structure of a high-octane love triangle and a woman torn between two men, with Jordan and Nash proving that, sometimes, the oldest storylines can still be the best.
Notwithstanding its title, the work avoids a feast of all too common self-indulgent balladry, plumping instead for a heavily rock based score full of exciting guitar riffs, punctuated by a pulsating percussive undertone with Sean Green’s band doing a fine job throughout the sung-through show.
Set in modern day New York, Sara’s passionate relationship with the gorgeously masculine and muscular Tom ends suddenly. Rebounding into the loving, caring arms of Michael who’s educated, compassionate and everything that Tom isn’t, their love develops into marriage and parenthood. A chance encounter years later between Sara and Tom sees a mutually lustful desire fatally re-ignited. What sets this show apart from most other emerging productions is its casting. Of the four lead roles, two are filled by actors more used to headlining casts in multi-million pound West End or Broadway productions, rather than the more intimate environs of the modestly budgeted Arts.
Kerry Ellis is Sara, playing a role that she herself has described as being a woman who’s “a rock star in a mother’s body”. Very much an everywoman (and so much more so than cinema’s saccharine Bridget Jones currently swamping the multiplexes) Ellis nails Sara’s complex emotions, juggling her primal lustful yearnings for Tom’s passion against the betrayal of the family that she’s built. Magnificent in both voice and presence and under the scrutiny of the venue’s compact space, Ellis delivers a knockout performance.
The source of her understandably weak-kneed desire is Ramin Karimloo’s Tom. Spending much of the gig shirtless, the ripped Karimloo demonstrates that the inked body art he sports on his left arm is as impressive as his renowned musical theatre ability. In a gender-reversed definition of pure theatrical Viagra, he brings a ravishing guttural energy to his performance. If Ellis is an everywoman on stage, then Karimloo is for (nearly) every woman in the audience.
It’s a tough gig to be cast against Ramin’s ramming, rampant potency, but Norman Bowman’s Michael rises to the occasion magnificently. His love for Sara is sincerely played out and Bowman who with as much Shakespeare as musical theatre to his recent credit, must surely be ranked as one of our finer performers. His character, a kindly homemaker is not the easiest to portray with an engaging sympathy, but as ever, Bowman pulls it off with charm and flair.
Completing the quartet of leads, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt takes on the chameleon-esque role of Narrator, guiding the narrative as it plays out across Manhattan. As ever beautifully voiced, Hamilton-Barritt offers her own seductive charm to the evening as the doomed denouement looms.
Sam Yates directs intelligently with a clever use of simple revolves and ingenious projections to transport us through time and place.
Shows this sassy don’t come along that often. Poignant, punchy and perfectly performed, Murder Ballad drips with desire.
Runs until 3rd December
Photo credit: Marc Brenner