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

Lizzie the Musical at Southwark Playhouse Elephant

Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860-1927) (Lauren Drew), as this production would have it, triumphed over adversity by getting her own back on a terrible father who mistreated her. The punishment, however, wasn’t proportionate to the crime. On 4th August 1892, she took an axe to her father, Andrew Jackson Borden (1822-1892) and stepmother, Abby Durfee Gray (1828-1892). Well, the Lizzie in this show says she did, and sings about it, then sings about it some more. At the murder trial, her sister Emma (Shekinah McFarlane) testified Lizzie burned a dress because it had been ruined by paint (and not because it was stained with the blood of the deceased), but it appears the defence didn’t cross-examine her any further on that point, which in turn contributed to a not guilty verdict.

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

The story is well known, particularly in the United States: a skipping rope rhyme, used in the show, goes, “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one”. It is, of course, unlikely they sustained that many blows before dying – and why on earth would it actually take that many ‘whacks’? It’s a merciful thing that the show doesn’t take a leaf out of Jesus Christ Superstar, which counts out loud the thirty-nine lashes Christ was said to have received.

Its style draws almost inevitable comparisons with Six, despite this show having premiered in 2009, and not only because three of the four actors have been in that other show at some point. Lizzie comes complete with a sort of megamix performed in contemporary costumes at the end (on press night, to my amusement, the audience had to be instructed to stand for it), although the result was rather jarring, lurching from an upbeat number to a more earnest one very suddenly, forcing more enthusiastic patrons to quickly recalibrate from bopping to the beat to – well, not. There’s a selective use of handheld microphones, and it is some way into the first half before any discernible increased amplification takes place (the actors also have head microphones, which brought to mind call centres).

There’s a subplot involving Lizzie and Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed) which came across to me as underdeveloped – and by contemporary standards, involved nothing more than two consenting adults doing what it is that consenting adults do in private. But this is one of those neighbourhoods where ‘everybody’ knows everybody else, and where one apparently can’t even go to the pharmacy without half the town noticing and wondering what kind of sickness is going on in someone’s household. Completing the on-stage characters is Bridget (Mairi Barclay), the live-in maid, who for reasons unexplained was referred to as Maggie.

There may not, in some people’s estimations, be such a thing as a rock musical that is too loud, but this one comes pretty close. From my vantage point, the lyrics were always clear, although I understand this wasn’t universally the case. The interval wasn’t, strictly speaking, entirely necessary given the overall running time – then again, fair play to the show for breaking away from the ninety-minute, no-interval trend. The cast’s singing voices are all stunning and delightful, but even by the standards of musicals, some of the lyrics were over-repetitive. The overarching point about gaining one-upmanship (or one-upwomanship) on the patriarchy is well made, but on the morning after the night before, I couldn’t recall a single tune or lyric (according to the programme, there are twenty-seven musical numbers). The choreography sparkles but the show takes longer than it should to tell audiences a relatively straightforward tale.

3 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

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 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.

26 OCT – 2 DEC 2023

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