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Lizzie the Musical at Southwark Playhouse Elephant

Lizzie Borden took an axe /She gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father forty-one”. This children’s nursery rhyme is possibly the main reason that we have a fascination with a horrendous double murder that took place in Fall River, a small town in Massachusetts way back in 1892. Since then the story has been turned into plays, TV documentaries and dramas – there was even a BBC Radio 4 programme on the subject last week. It’s also been turned into a number of musicals, the latest one Lizzie which is currently playing at Southwark Playhouse after completing a short tour.

The Company of LIZZIE The Musical Southwark Playhouse. Credit Pamela Raith Photography.
The Company of LIZZIE The Musical Southwark Playhouse. Credit Pamela Raith Photography.

Lizzie was first performed in New York in 2009 and was seen all over the US before being performed at the Greenwich Theatre in 2017 and since then has played in a number of countries around the world. With the music, lyrics and book by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, this latest version of the rock musical is directed and choreographed by William Whelton who’s also the CEO of the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester who have produced the show.

Lizzie tells the story of Lizzie Borden (played by Lauren Drew) living in a repressed household with an abusive father who watches over her like a hawk and a horrible stepmother whom Lizzie hates. Also living in the house are Lizzie’s sister Emma (Shekinah McFarlane) and their Irish housekeeper Bridget (Mairi Barclay). The other character (we never see Lizzie’s father or stepmother) is Lizzie’s friend and possibly her lover, Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed). Lizzie is terribly unhappy and finally snaps and kills both parents in a gruesome off-stage frenzy of bloodletting and when we see her again, she’s covered in blood and gore. The rest of the story has her in court being tried for double murder where incredibly, she’s found not guilty.

The production as well as having an all-female cast, also has an all-female band led by Musical Director Honor Halford-MacLeod and it’s a story of girl power and how four women band together to support each other – although if Lizzie was guilty, maybe that support was misguided. The four performers have amazing, powerful voices which they need as there’s very little dialogue and the show is almost sung-through with something twenty-five songs. It’s not very long, just about ninety minutes or so and for some reason, there was an interval where it could just as easily have done without one. Another problem is that’s very, very loud. Yes, it’s a rock musical but you still need to hear the lyrics and at times you couldn’t even though the cast were wearing head microphones, they often used hand-held ones too which made it even louder and less clear. Andrew Exeter’s lighting design was excellent as was Dan Light’s video design and at times you felt as if you were at a rock concert. Lizzie has distinct ‘Six‘ vibes although as Whelton says in his programme notes “Lizzie premiered in 2009 way before the theatre world was engulfed by the “Six” phenomenon and I have always felt there is a connection between the shows albeit Lizzie is a lot darker and bloodier”. To reinforce the ‘Six‘ connection, three of the cast have appeared in that show at one time or another.

At the end of the show in which the characters wear clothes of the time, they disappear before coming back in steam-punk/goth gear with big Doc Martin boots having thrown off the corsets and high-collared blouses of Victorian times – they’re no longer restricted and their true selves are revealed as they sing even louder than before and close the show with a reprise of some of the songs in the show – this is no longer a rock musical but a rock gig.

To carry on the comparison, if you enjoyed ‘Six‘ you’ll probably enjoy Lizzie – it’ll be interesting to see if the latter enjoys the enormous success of the former even though the story of Lizzie Borden isn’t as well known as the story of Henry VIII’s six wives.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

Lizzie The Musical explores the life of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in the late summer of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. The musical delves into her complex psyche and speculates on the motivations she may have had: loss of inheritance, history of sexual abuse, oppression, and madness. Lizzie, along with her older sister Emma, maid Bridget, and neighbour Alice, bring to life the infamous story supported on stage by an all-female band.

The cast features three stars of ‘SIX’ the musical:

Lauren Drew (Catherine of Aragon, ‘SIX’, UK tour; Brooke in ‘Legally Blonde’, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; ‘The Voice’ 2021 semi finalist, team will.i.am) plays Lizzie.

Maiya Quansah-Breed (Olivier nominated Best Supporting Actress as Catherine Parr, ‘SIX’, original West End cast; Mimi in ‘Rent’, Hope Mill Theatre; and just announced to play Princess Diana in ‘Diana the Musical in concert) is Alice.

Shekinah McFarlane (Anna of Cleves, SIX’, UK tour, Anna of Cleves & Catherine Aragon alternates in ‘SIX’, West End; Alysha in ‘American Idiot’, UK tour, Dionne in ‘Hair’, 50th anniversary UK tour, ‘The Voice’ 2022 semi-finalist under the name Shaka, team Olly Murs) is Emma.

Mairi Barclay (Fastrada/Berthe in ‘Pippin’, Southwark Playhouse; Monkey in Ian McKellen’s ‘Mother Goose’, West End & UK tour) is Bridget.

Ayesha Patel (Dima Bawab in ‘Broken Wings’, Charing Cross Theatre, receiving a Broadway World nomination for ‘Best Performance as an Understudy or Alternate’ for covering and playing the lead role of Selma Karamy) is cover Bridget.

Emma Louise Hoey (Lou in ‘Club Mex’, Hope Mill Theatre) is cover Lizzie and Alice.

Creative Team:
Director/Choreographer William Whelton
Set and Lighting Design Andrew Exeter
Musical Supervision Katy Richardson
Associate Choreographer Yandass Ndlovu
Video Design Dan Light
Musical Direction Honor Halford-Macleod
Costume Design Rachel Tansey
Sound Design Adam Fisher
Casting by Pearson Casting CDG CDA CSA
Produced by Hope Mill Theatre.

HOPE MILL THEATRE PRESENTS
LIZZIE
BY STEVEN CHESLIK-DEMEYER, TIM MANER, AND ALAN STEVENS HEWITT.
26 OCT – 2 DEC 2023
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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