Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 5 February 2022
A hundred years ago, not long after another worldwide pandemic, Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman took hold and inspired two 19-year old students to kill a child for the thrill of it. Following Darwin’s theories about survival of the fittest and related eugenicist notions that lasted through the Boer and Great Wars into the 1920s, the notion that some men are born superior and are therefore immune from the laws and social customs of lesser folk was sustained.
And while later generations may think they are more liberal, reasoned people than their ancestors, we need only look at the news in the last fortnight to see that those notions of elite exemption, that rules needn’t apply equally to everyone, are still very much in evidence.
Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story was the latest in a long line of cultural products inspired by this infamous murder case in 1920s America. Orson Welles starred as their lawyer Clarence Darrow in the film Compulsion in 1959 while, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock based his 1948 movie Rope on the crime, while Rope itself has gone on to inspire both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Psychoville as well as Sam Mendes’ one-shot technique used in 1917.
Dolginoff’s musical itself has been continually revived with productions in 2015 at the Greenwich Theatre followed by a 2017 stint at the Arcola directed by Guy Retallack, then in 2019 at the Hope Theatre led by Matthew Parker which now transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre for a three-week run.
At just 85-minutes, Dolginoff’s musical is a masterclass in succinct and intensive storytelling, a fascinating character study that tries to unpick the reasoning behind what was perceived as a motiveless murder while never detracting from the cold-blooded horror of Leopold and Loeb’s actions. But far from a scientific and remote assessment of their actions, Dolginoff created a production that is filled with emotional complexity as 34-years on Nathan Leopold looks back on his part in this savage murder framed as a parole hearing in which he reveals a story of acute sexual obsession and coercive control that is as dramatically interesting as the superman concept the killers used to justify their lawless spree
Told in flashback from a single perspective, Dolginoff in many ways feeds a societal obsession with the perpetrators rather than the victims of serious crimes and while their target Bobby Franks is named, like his murderers who chose him at random from the school gates, the audience learns almost nothing about him. Instead we are taken into the mind of Nathan Leopold whose testimony to the Parole Board is used to move the story along, seamlessly filling gaps in time and changes of location that maintain the overall pace and shape of the show.
But it also serves as a reminder that everything being presented to the viewer is Leopold’s version of events, and despite being a clever two hander, even the presentation of Richard Loeb is being told from Leopold’s perspective, a structural slight of hand that is easy to forget as you become immersed in Dolginoff’s consuming storytelling. But Loeb is never around to offer his point of view and for those who don’t know the outcome, just what happened to Richard Loeb is one of the musical’s drivers along with the result of Leopold’s Parole Board and learning their true motive in the retelling of these defining months in his life.
Dolginoff spends some time setting the scene, painting a picture of young men who were more than friends but tainted by different notions of superiority that colour their time together. As well as scenes and songs discussing their intellectual belief in Nietzsche’s philosophies of class-like social layers in which individuals are born above the basic existence of others and are therefore more worthy and free of ordinary constraints, as much time is spent establishing the semi-abusive personal relationship between Nathan and the disdainful object of his affection, Richard.
And it is still relatively rare to see this abuse dynamic in a same sex relationship on stage, so while Leopold is by no means a likeable or even emotionally stable personality, Loeb’s callous manipulation of his seemingly ‘weaker’ partner, using his obvious devotion to demand collusion, complicity and, eventually, protection from prosecution, is one of Thrill Me‘s most unusual aspects giving it additional layers that qualify what could have been a sensationalist account of a gruesome crime. It is particularly notable that Loeb casually uses sex as a weapon to coerce his lover into assisting him, withholding it when it suits him despite their blood contract to ‘thrill’ each other with crimes and carnal encounters. As their bargain becomes tiresome to Loeb, his own feelings of superiority over the more emotionally invested Leopold, lead him to make a series of arrogant mistakes that shapes the remainder of the story.
Yet Dolginoff never allows Leopold to become too sympathetic either. He may be in an abusive relationship but Thrill Me asks some unanswered questions about the extent to which Leopold was culpable for the crimes he assisted with – including early thrills such as arson and burglary – and whether he could have stopped them in songs like Way to Far just before the murder which is also reprised later in the show. Leopold’s obvious sexual obsession with Loeb and jealousy of unseen friends adds to our uncertainty about his stability. It marks him as an oddity, a loner who doesn’t quite fit with little to focus on other than his much admired friend, and this marks a particular contrast to the more grounded and measured character he presents 34 years later. Was this a youthful fit of young love or is Leopold skilfully bending the historical record to impress the prison authorities and the audience?
In Bart Lambert’s performance for Jermyn Street Theatre’s production you are never entirely sure. His Leopold is an unnerving creation, a bundle of feelings and thoughts that manifest as tics and expressions that make for a extremely physical interpretation of the character. Lambert is never still, his Leopold never at ease at any point in the story, either anticipating affection or rejection from Loeb in a trembling feeling that courses through his limbs and vocal. He is constantly thinking, the mind appearing to leap from worry to happiness, despair to passion in just moments, giving him a mercurial although not necessarily dangerous quality.
It’s a potentially clever piece of misdirection from Lambert, using the strands of empathy that Dolginoff builds into the character to give Leopold a geeky sadness, a man desperate to be loved by someone who actively refuses to return his feelings. And it builds right into the musical’s point of view, that this is Leopold showing us Nathan as we ought to see him, the poor, misguided student driven crazy by love and forced to go along with a series of terrible crimes. Lambert contrasts this so well with the older Leopold, transforming in a second into the reasoned, regretful prisoner trying to win his freedom by adopting a deeper tone to his voice and more confident stance that adds considerable weight to the revelations that conclude this story.
Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is a harder character to pitch in some ways largely driven by an intellectual curiosity and arrogance that, understandably, leaves no room for emotional depth or empathy with his perspective. Reitman presents Loeb as detached, cold even sociopathic, with no evident conscience or concern in the aftermath of his crimes. He becomes more animated during the acts themselves but the brief excitement quickly subsides.
But Reitman’s Loeb has a charisma and easy confidence that makes sense of Leopold’s obsession with him, a need to be the centre of attention, to have the final world that makes him often disdainful of his companion’s advances. There is a weakness underneath, a fear of not doing anything that matters that Reitman feeds through his characterisation which subtly undercuts Loeb’s enjoyment of the power he wields, and while he believes that power gives him freedom to act without consequence, Reitman makes the most of his final song Afraid to explore an eventual dark night of the soul as it inevitably catches up with the deluded boy he always was underneath.
Thrill Me suits the intimacy of smaller venues and Matthew Parker’s production brings a feeling of pacey claustrophobia to Jermyn Street as these two men become trapped in an addictive cycle. Rachael Ryan’s set is a wonderfully evocative police reconstruction wall filled with photos, maps and notes created on Loeb’s crucial typewriter as well as tagged evidence connected by red string that extends across the top of the playing space to create accusatory links into the audience that question our social philosophies, laws and fascination with killers that created and sustain a ghoulish interest in Leopold and Loeb.
Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is incredibly atmospheric moving from a beautiful spring day in the woods when the friends are reunited before slowly sucking the light out of the show, first in dim rooms in which crimes were planned and then the pure multi-level darkness of the central murder moment lit only by the intensifying glare of Loeb’s roadster headlamps. McDonnell also creates valuable and swift locational changes such as the impression of a raging fire in a factory as well as the stripped flickering light of the prison when Leopold is making his final appeal.
Parker’s production is swift but evocative, integrating scene changes into the story as the characters shift boxes and benches naturally to establish the next location and keep Dolginoff’s musical on track while the absence of other actors – besides the pianist (uncredited) providing accompaniment- adds to the notion of being in Leopold’s mind throughout with even the booming pre-recorded voices of authority seeming to come from a distant, unrelated place.
It is such an interesting time for musical theatre, offering real opportunities to rival drama in the successful and meaningful presentation of more complex or tragic stories. From the latest Cabaret revival to Gatsby: A Musical, there is a darker form emerging that suits this timely revival of Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, and at a time when our leaders really do think they are Nietzsche’s ‘supermen’, this Jermyn Street production is a stark warning of just how dangerous feeling superior can be.
Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 February with tickets from £15 in preview. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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‘A masterclass in succinct & intensive storytelling’: @culturalcap1 notes the dark trends evidenced in @MatthewParker75’s revival of #ThrillMe, transferred from @TheHopeTheatre to @JSTheatre til 5 Feb. #musicaltheatre #theatrereviews