I’ve never seen an audience reaction in the theatre quite like the one for Lizzie, but then again I’ve never seen a musical quite like Lizzie.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the brutal axe murder of her father and step-mother in 1892, after the forensic evidence was not sufficient enough to warrant a conviction. This gruesome, unsolved case was a media sensation that fascinated the public for years to follow. This is an unfamiliar subject matter for a musical, but combined with rousing rock music, successfully portrays an impassioned rebellion against the abuse and suppression of women in this era.
The musical makes no attempt to exonerate Lizzie (played by Bjørg Gamst) from the crime, but rather tells the story of the motives and circumstances surrounding the murder, to allow the audience to understand and even sympathise with the anti-heroin. We are shown the important involvement of Lizzie’s sister Emma (Eden Espinosa), Alice Manely Russell (Bleu Woodward), a close-friend and love interest of Lizzie, and the maid Bridget – known to them as Maggie (Jodie Jacobs).
Directed by Victoria Bussert, Lizzie really is a masterclass in vocal technique. In a faultless display of incredible strength and versatility, every slide, belt and riff was perfectly executed. This type of singing is a war-cry of the oppressed, a perfect complement to the inner torment of these women.
Gamst portrays Lizzie’s transformation spectacularly – a clear progression from a frightened girl to someone who is pushed to do the unthinkable. The highlight is for me is the acclaimed Eden Espinosa. She is a breathtaking actress and singer. Her vocal skill is so exceptional and every word is sung with intent. I would have liked to have seen more of her, her performance alone is reason to go again!
Due to the rock concert aesthetic, and as most of the narrative was made clear through the songs, the staging was minimal with little need for props. The ones used were highly effective however, managing to combine gore with humour for maximum alienation effect (and featuring excellent use of melons).
Choreography mostly includes onstage microphones, often parodying the rock genre. These do not get in the way of the performers but the choreography really comes to life when they are not being implemented. For example, in Lizzie’s tender, heartbreaking song ‘This is Not Love’, her moving plea to be released from the abuse of her father, haunting, puppet-like movements show a lack of control she has over her own body.
The humour is dark and reflexive, mostly provided by the wonderful Jodie Jacobs. There are moving moments from Bleu Woodward’s Alice, particularly in the love song ‘If You Knew’, one of the softer numbers in the musical, where she professes her love for Lizzie.
Lizzie is loud, fierce and angry – if you don’t have a particular love for rock musicals, the songs might seem a little overbearing. However, if you want to see something refreshing, deeply felt and with some of the best singing I’ve heard on a British stage, try and catch it before it closes on the 12th of March at the Greenwich Theatre. You’ll be joining in with the rapturous applause at the end.