I am trying to type swiftly as Lizzie is only showing until this Sunday 12th March and I want to give you time to go and see it too. I have seen Jesus Christ Superstar (rock musical), I have seen the Rocky Horror Show (fishnet tights and corsets on stage), but I have never seen anything quite like Lizzie before.
If you know Greenwich Theatre, you will be lost. The foyer looks like the photograph below, an early warning of the blood that is going to be shed. When you reach the auditorium, you will find glossy blue floors on the stage, impressive lighting rigged at the back, five rock musicians to the sides and the musical director in a small pit in the floor. It feels like you have wandered into a stadium ready for a rock concert.
Four female actors take the stage and begin to tell the story standing at four microphones on stands. Most of the narrative is told in song (we will come to the voices). Lizzie Borden is the eponymous character, a real person who has become part of American folklore through being accused of murdering her father and her step mother in 1892 Massachussets with an axe. She was acquitted and lived freely until her death, but was considered guilty by many of her neighbours. Nobody really knows what happened and there have been many interpretations of the story.
In this version we are left in no doubt that Lizzie was the perpetrator of the double murder, but it is represented as being justified due to sexual abuse by her father.
To get back to the performances, well the four women are fantastic. Lizzie herself is played by Bjorg Gamst, who played the title role in the original Fredericia Teater production of Lizzie in Denmark. She not only has a brilliant voice and looks the part, but she also has the most expressive face. It veers into exaggeration, particularly in Act 2, but this is a role where overplaying seems right. Her sister Emma is played by Eden Espinosa, an American actress who has played most lead roles in musicals on Broadway and you can see why. The Irish nurse maid Maggie – or Bridget – is played by Jodie Jacobs, the British actress with another massive voice who also provides some of the light relief amongst the bloodshed. Finally there is Bleu Woodward who plays Alice Russell, the friend who becomes Lizzie’s lover, and she adds her mellifluous voice into the mix.
We know when we are nearing the big, bloody climax of Act One, as we see that the characters on stage are putting on raincoats, and the first two rows of audience brace for the big moment, having been given rain ponchos to shield their clothes from any blood which may happen to spray. I will leave you to see for yourself how they achieve the gory effects! The interval is a busy time for the crew, with cleaners mopping the stage, and backstage a lot of work is apparently going on too. Whereas Act One saw the cast in long dowdy dresses from the nineteenth century, Act Two sees a whole new styling as the cast reappears in sexy leather, basques, big hair, high boots and striking make up. I’m guessing the transformation is meant to signify Lizzie’s freedom and liberation after committing the atrocious deed. Whatever it means, it looks great.
As well as discreet microphones around their necks, the cast members also use hand held microphones, handing them to each other in a choreographed way, which adds to the effect as well as the volume. It is hard to believe that it is just the sound of four voices that we hear; moreover, it is refreshing to not hear a male voice all night.
As well as the sound, the lighting is amazing. Combined with projections on the back wall and changing the colours and tones in different scenes, the lighting is quite stunning.
Lizzie tells an old story in a very new way and I would congratulate everybody involved in the production if I had the space. The original concept and music by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, the cast, the musicians (MD Martin Bergmann Konge), the sound design (Tim Høyer), the lighting design (Martin Jensen) and the director (Victoria Bussert) must take first glory as their effect is so obvious, but the whole technical impact of the show is so immense that it feels wrong to single anyone out. Suffice to say, I would see this show again in a heartbeat, and I would hope that anyone reading this who could make it to Greenwich Theatre this week really does make the effort to do so. It is not every day that you get to see a show this big in an off-West End venue and I am delighted that it is happening at Greenwich. Lizzie is not for everybody – it is a rock musical featuring the murder of one’s parents by axe, dead pigeons, child abuse, lesbianism and a lot of fake blood – but if you are at all curious, please give it a try.
Photo: Søren Malmose
Lastly, I want to give a big thank you to Theatre Bloggers, as this was my first theatregoing assignment for them. Not a bad start! I’m looking forward to many more, especially if they are half as fun as Lizzie.
hattydaze rating: ****/*****