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Thrill Me

by on 1 February 2023

Kill  Joy

Thrill Me

by Stephen Dolginoff

Teddington Theatre Club at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 4th February

Review by Steve Mackrell

Thrill Me is an award-winning musical thriller, written by American playwright and composer, Stephen Dolginoff, which premiered off-Broadway in 2005.  In the UK, it was performed at the Hope and Anchor theatre pub in Islington in 2019, and subsequently had a one-month run last year at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

The play is based on the true-life story of a couple of twenty-year-old students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy in Chicago in 1924.  However, the underlying interest of the drama is not so much the murder itself, but in the exploration of the motives of the two students, and in particular, their fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Ubermenschen, “supermen”.  This relates to the belief that certain individuals with superior intellect can act with disregard to the conventional rules of society, thereby rendering themselves above the law, and thus, not liable for their actions.  The play shows how they both test this concept, with a bold plan to carry out a “perfect” murder.

The choice of Thrill Me, which is an unusual and off-beat two-hander, shows some remarkably brave programming by Teddington Theatre Club.   While clearly not mainstream theatre, this adventurous and experimental piece of provocative drama is perfectly suited for the small fifty-seat Coward Studio at Hampton Hill Theatre – an intimate setting where you can almost feel the pulse of the actors. 

The play, which unfolds in flashbacks from the gaol where Leopold was subsequently imprisoned, is directed by Wesley Henderson Roe.  With just two actors on stage for 85 minutes, pace, timing and physical movement are especially critical, and Wesley Henderson Roe’s skilful direction meets all these criteria.  The bare set contains just a few black boxes around which the actors navigate like a pair of vultures hovering over their potential prey.  This is a taut, dark piece of theatre, with the actors displaying a versatile range of facial expressions, especially in the exploration of their burgeoning relationship, all of which helps to maintain our believability in these two pathological characters. 

Jacob Taylor plays the hedonistic Nathan Leopold, giving an intense yet sensitive performance which captures the tormented soul of this narcissistic and flawed intellect.  With his continually twitching hands and nervous glances we are slowly drawn into his world and into his obsession with Loeb, his partner in crime.  This was a masterly interpretation of the intensity of Leopold’s intellect and his fanatical pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. 

Jacob Elsey plays the equally disturbed Richard Loeb, giving a strong yet sensual performance which is both perceptive and believable.  The relationship between the two men is critical, and especially in the later portrayal of Loeb’s increasing subservience to Leopold.  The scenes showing the couple’s growing affection for each other, and their feverish sexual exchanges, are both powerful and passionate.  The intensity between the two men is greatly heightened by the intimate acting space of the Coward Studio, drawing the audience closer into the action to feel almost like being a participant in what was to become – in the US at least – “the crime of the century.”

The mood of this dark and steamy play is enhanced by the evocative music score.  In essence, the plot is told through the lyrics of some fifteen songs to the piano accompaniment of Nicola Luker, who is located stage left, behind “prison” bars.  The bitter-sweet songs have hints of Sondheim and Kurt Weill and greatly add to the intensity of the story.   The emotive songs, beautifully performed by Jacob Taylor and Jacob Elsey, underline the poignancy of the drama.  Especially haunting were the songs Why and Way Too Far and moments of excellent harmony in songs such as Nothing Like Fire.  Jacob Elsey’s song Roadster, about picking up the murder victim, was especially powerful and brimming with sexual energy with lyrics like “the power of my engine.” Also, there was some excellent counter melody in the song Ransom Note and, indeed, an almost angelic duet in the rendition of Nothing Like Fire.  Finally, the title song Thrill Me, tingled the spine with its sexual intensity and references to the thrill of the kill. 

The dark mood of the piece was fully supported by a well-drilled and efficient technical team, including lighting design (John Hart and Gary Stevenson), especially effective in the arson scene, and sound design (Josh Bayfield) with clinking sounds of prison doors and typewriter keys.   This was an excellent production in every department, from stage manager (Kathryn Smith) to costumes (Mags Wrightson – and especially the detail of the black and white two-tone co-respondent shoes) and voice coach (Lizzie Lattimore) for helping the actors sustain their American accents.  Also, and easy to overlook, but the TTC programme for Thrill Me seems to have enjoyed a makeover and now contains sixteen informative pages.

Finally, a note about the props because an interesting feature were the sixteen “courtroom exhibits” laid out on a table in the foyer.   A clever touch, since all these “props” were mimed during the show, and especially enjoyable were the bird-watching with pretend binoculars and typing on a pretend Underwood typewriter. 

This is an exquisite and haunting production which delivers a profound impact and is a gem not to be missed.

Steve Mackrell, January 2023

Photography by Kim Harding

  1. Stephen Taylor permalink

    Saw this performance on first night too. Electric performances and the singing was perfection – every not and every word but also so wel acted throughout each piece. Dark the story maybe, but dazzling we’re the performances

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