Arcola Theatre, London – until 2 September 2017
A crime of passion, entered into without thought of the consequence, but not unknowingly or even unwillingly. As long as Nathan Leopold (Harry Downes) commits himself to Richard Loeb (Ellis Dackombe) and his twisted fantasies, he will have everything he wants – the man of his dreams. Stephen Dolginoff’s Thrill Me cleverly captures the various shades of darkness inherent within his two characters, a two-hander that balances intelligence and emotion.
Thrill Me is an insight into the warped worlds of high-functioning psychopathy that draws from Nietzsche’s philosophical construct of supermen – the ultimate in human, transcendental arrogance. Guy Retallack’s direction goes some way to manifesting this on stage, but can do more to elevate the dastardly duo and further accentuate their crazed genius.
Combined with Dolginoff’s composition, Kris Rawlinson’s musical direction gives deep, almost gothic colouring to Thrill Me. Rawlinson hammers out purple, richly romantic melodies and supports them with strong, heady bass chords that evoke images of expansive excess and luxurious, gluttonous vanity. It suits Dackombe’s characterisation of Loeb perfectly – so encased in himself that it’s barely even an afterthought to manipulates his weedy, malleable contemporary (Downes) into helping him fulfil his most sadistic wishes. Dackombe conveys a plethora of reactions through a single, intense gaze in an acting performance that displays true emotional complexity.
Retallack cleverly plays with sadomasochistic concepts to heighten the dangerous sexuality inherent in this relationship, beautifully supported by Richard Williamson’s ingenious and evocative lighting design. Thrill Me‘s production value lies mainly in the visual – shapes and colours that effortlessly direct the audience and produce a lightscape with subtlety and depth. The sound, while beautifully composed, at times feels muted, unable to carry across the space and exact its influence as it’s meant to. There is exceptional potential in the musical gravitas here, but the result feels lost at times.
This also rings true for the songs themselves – overflowing with intent, they nevertheless feel underdeveloped in their structure. Too many of Thrill Me’s vocals adopt the same structure, sung in unison with insufficient harmonic diversity. While Leopold (Downes) is consistent in his delivery throughout the show, Loeb (Dackombe) takes time to warm into his part. The title song however is a beautifully crafted piece that shows off Dolginoff at his best – intricate lyrics overlay a deep composition that balances tenderness and aggression perfectly. Likewise, Dackombe’s performance towards the end that requires him to subvert his true fears for the sake of appearances is vulnerable and impactful.
Thrill Me is a musical theatre performance of duality – passionate heat with murderous results. It manipulates its audience right until the end, with a final twist that reveals the true darkness of both its protagonists. There are a few elements that can be tighter in Retallack’s direction to reinforce the power in Dolginoff’s compositions, but otherwise this is a twisted production that uncovers the anti-heroism of humanity – it exposes the dregs and holds them up to the bleak light of day.