Matthew Parker’s revival of the popular off-Broadway musical based on the story of teenage murderers Nathan Leopold (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb (1905-1936) is now is residence at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre in Piccadilly Circus after a successful run at the Hope Theatre, Islington.
Performed by two singer-actors, a pianist, and a voiceover, Thrill Me is staged in a richly detailed set by Rachael Ryan full of newspaper clippings and photographs, which serves as a prison, bedroom, warehouse, park and car. It is full of suggestion but the lighting (by Chris McDonnell) and sound (by Simon Arrowsmith) pull us right into each moment. This is particularly true immediately prior to the murder where Loeb lures their victim in a chilling and beautifully choreographed song.
Leopold is the one who seems to be manipulated and led by his confident friend and lover, Loeb. It is clear from the beginning that we are seeing the story from his perspective, seeing events as he does. It is a tactic that even makes us have some sympathy with a child killer, but the distinction between the nervous young man and the older prisoner who weighs each word after an incarceration of more than three decades is stark.
Both men seek their thrills in the illicit and illegal, whether that means arson, burglary, gay sex or, eventually, murder. Leopold’s longing for Loeb feels pathetic at first, Loeb’s toying with him cruel, but things may not be what they seem. We may be being played just as much as anyone on the stage.
The score by Stephen Dolginoff, who also wrote the book and lyrics, is rich with dark motifs, and evokes both Faustian and Jekyll and Hyde plotlines. This first production in Jermyn Street Theatre’s Outsiders season posits the men as halves of the same coin, incapable of functioning without each other, detached from the ethics of ordinary life.
Bart Lambert’s Leopold is deliberately overmannered at times, contrasting with Jack Reitman’s Loeb and his lack of outside emotion. Their interaction at crime scenes is deeply sexual and disturbing, yet sometimes laced with black humour.
You can set Thrill Me against other media inspired by the case (Hitchcock’s Rope, the book and film of Compulsion, the film Swoon) to piece together a kind of truth of what happened here. This is a powerful and engrossing musical, well constructed and with fine musical direction by MD and pianist Benjamin McQuigg.
Thrill Me continues at Jermyn Street until 5 February 2022. Book your tickets here. Note that some socially distanced perfomances are available.
Image credit: Steve Gregson