tue 23/07/2024

Murder Ballad, Arts Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Murder Ballad, Arts Theatre

Murder Ballad, Arts Theatre

A starry cast elevates an insubstantial new rock musical

Till death us do part: Michael (Norman Bowman) embraces wife Sara (Kerry Ellis)Marc Brenner

Ye olde love triangle returns, this time as the centrepiece of a rock chamber musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 2013 and now makes its UK premiere. There’s a good guy, a bad boy, and the promise of a violent end, but despite the oft-referenced roiling passions – and a storming quartet of performances – Sam Yates’s staging feels too cool and clinical for its purportedly hot-blooded subject.

While the original American production dragged a reluctantly complicit audience into the grungy downtown New York bar where reformed party girl Sara – now with a husband and child on the Upper West Side – falls back into old habits with ex Tom, here we’re spectating from a respectful distance. Yates’s use of a revolve and sliding screens with over-literal video projection adds to this alienation, making it feel like watching a fussy installation piece in a sleek Soho gallery (Kerry Ellis, Ramin Karimloo and Michael Bowman pictured below).

Murder Ballad, Arts TheatreIt’s an odd choice, as the best qualities of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s sung-through, 80-minute work are its raw, confessional style and pulpy immediacy; sever that intimate connection and the piece asks to be judged on different terms. That doesn't do its story, characterisation or score any favours – though the latter is instantly engaging and more of an earworm than many new musicals – as all lack the depth and variation needed to sustain a long show. Similarly, the lyrics, when examined too closely, slide from promising barbs to wincingly facile. “Losing’s easy, winning’s hard” goes one, and “We are two cats in a fishbowl.” Predictable rhymes land like anvils.

Yet the starry casting makes this a tantalising proposition – a chance to see four players more accustomed to leading blockbuster shows up close. Kerry Ellis skilfully elevates the familiar material and an under-developed role, communicating real anguish as the conflicted Sara battles ungovernable emotions. Unfortunately, myriad costume changes pull focus from her soul-bearing performance of the rocky score, and get in the way of potentially steamy scenes with Ramin Karimloo’s tattooed Tom.

Karimloo – who similarly spends a fair amount of time in a state of undress – has a powerful physicality and textured vocals, finding both heart and crackling sensuality, while Norman Bowman smartly saves husband Michael from nice guy tedium by placing him on the same continuum as Tom. He’s caring and well-intentioned, yet when cosy domesticity is threatened, his response is chilling.

Murder Ballad, Arts TheatreBut Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (pictured above, foreground) steals the show as an enigmatic, smouldering narrator, stalking the stage in her sleek coat and sharp heels. Whether disdainfully flicking a fag – a good match for her smoky vocal delivery – or offering derisive commentary, she’s a magnetic presence. Yet that role of sardonic observer hints at a layer of meta storytelling which never quite coalesces, despite a late twist and a challenge to the audience for our voyeuristic consumption of such titillating killer-thriller fare. (Chicago, among others, already covered that ground.)

There’s propulsive support from Sean Green’s excellent band, though the decision to have two musicians emerge from behind the screens and wander into the action at one point is perplexing – Richard Kent’s design could perhaps have incorporated them more organically throughout. A problematic production, but the blistering performances make you forgive most of its sins.


Victoria Hamilton-Barritt steals the show as an enigmatic, smouldering narrator


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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