“Do you know what would thrill me?”
People often assume that I’ve been to every theatre in London, more than once, and though it may seem like it, there are just so many and new ones opening all the time that not even I can make this boast, yet. The Tristan Bates Theatre, tucked away in a Covent Garden back street near Fopp, is one place I haven’t been before and so my trip to see American musical Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story meant I could knock more off the list. It is based on the 1920s true story of wealthy Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb and the twisted relationship that existed between them as they searched for the ultimate thrill. Their raft of misdemeanours took a darker turn though as the crimes got more serious in order to make the thrills bigger, culminating in the ‘perfect crime’ – the murder of a young boy in 1924. The story is told in a series of flashbacks as we start in 1958 at the parole board hearing of Leopold.
A two-hander, it relies totally on the quality of its performers and director Guy Retellack has hit gold with his perfectly cast pair here: George Maguire and Jye Frasca who both bring highly nuanced performances to try and throw some light onto this complex and psychologically messy relationship. Maguire’s Loeb is the fan of Nietzsche, utterly convinced he’s above the law and seemingly the one driving the pair’s actions whereas Frasca’s Leopold is more the willing accomplice, desperate and willing to do anything to win the attention and affection of his friend and lover. Both sound outstandingly good in the intimate space and convinced as a couple, albeit one with serious issues, and as the beginnings of an explanation of the psychology that could lead to such crimes being committed. Frasca also did extremely well at playing the older Leopold, using subtle inflections in his voice to suggest the effect of more than 30 years in prison.
As is often the case where book, music and lyrics is written by the one person, Stephen Dolginoff in this case, there’s little variation in tone, both dramatically and musically. The simple design allows the focus to remain on the acting and singing and fortunately for me, I rather enjoyed the intense mood generated and the diligently performed piano-led score from David Keefe, but there were moments where it felt just too repetitive and one-note, where perhaps a collaborator might have been able to inject a bit of diversity into the mix and really make the case for the inclusion of the songs.
Events were amusingly held up somewhat by lighting problems which meant the title song was delivered in the shadowy dark, a brief intermission to fix things was then followed by the lights going out again. The guys carried on gamely in the now pitch black but when the lyric went ‘I can’t see you anymore’, the place dissolved into laughter, them included, and a longer break ensued as the problem was resolved properly. It was nice of the management to offer another ticket free of charge to see the show uninterrupted but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment too much. Front of house staff came closer to that by telling me that I could ‘go in but that was that’ when I asked where the door to the theatre was (there was still more than 5 minutes ‘til curtain up): you win some, you lose some!
So all in all, a rather impressive debut for the Tristan Bates in my theatregoing. Thrill Me is a rough gem but has its merits, not least in the stunning performances of its two male leads and the incredibly refreshing lack of emphasis on their homosexuality, it is just a given, no fuss made, making one realise how rare that is in depictions of gay men. There’s added interest in voiceover support from Lee Mead and Patricia Quinn as parole officers and Les Dennis as a radio announcer, but make no mistake, this is Frasca and Maguire’s show.