BWW Review: MURDER BALLAD, Arts Theatre, 5 October 2016
Following a brief Off-Broadway foray in 2013, Murder Ballad makes its UK premiere at the Arts Theatre featuring an all-star cast of seasoned musical theatre performers. It is a 90-minute, sung-through rock musical with dangerous intentions.
The show's focus is a love triangle between Sara, her husband Michael and old flame Tom. In the beginning we see Sara's tempestuous relationship with Tom in fast-forward, leading into her meeting polar opposite Michael and plunging into a more stable coupling with him - culminating in marriage and a child, Frankie. Sara starts to wonder if she's missing out on something, reigniting her love for Tom on a whim but getting in deeper than she could ever anticipate.
Julia Jordan's book is a modern take on the age-old story of love and temptation. Surprisingly the hurried nature of early scenes works, setting a solid foundation for later events as the story passes through ten years in a matter of minutes. It allows for a greater focus on the days leading up to the murder and explores the consequences of adultery on all parties in significant depth. Juliana Nash's music sets the mood and pace of each piece, providing enough variation to pique the audience's interest and keep the story moving.
Rock music is the perfect foil for a show in which passions boil over, allowing each character in turn to vent their frustration or profess their love in a dynamic, yet believable, way. The presence of the live band adds to its authenticity, though it's unclear why they are unveiled at a few points during the show, with guitarist and bassist stepping forward into the midst of the action.
The Off-Broadway production was set in Tom's bar, however this version has a starker design, courtesy of Richard Kent. Its background is more reminiscent of prison bars, foreshadowing the crime that will be committed, and allowing for innovative video projections (Laura Perrett) to be displayed in the background - the most noteworthy being that of the victim's blood seeping out following their brutal murder. The revolve is occasionally overused, but nonetheless adds an extra dimension to the storytelling.
Rock musicals can be in danger of losing their edge if the casting is not quite right, however in this case it is spot on. Experienced musical theatre actors Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo star as Sara and Tom, oozing chemistry and easily carrying off any vocal challenges they are set. Norman Bowman gives a tender performance as Michael, providing an unexpected highlight with the reprise of "Little by Little" as Sara's infidelity is discovered. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt stands out as the Narrator, stalking ambiguously across the stage until the last, giving knowing glances to the audience.
Murder Ballad is the best original rock musical London has seen in a long while. A classic storyline coupled with a catchy soundtrack makes for a killer combination; it'll keep you guessing until the final scene.
Picture credit: Marc Brenner