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5th September 2023

Reviewing ‘Lizzie’: True crime meets feminist rock musical

Lizzie, a “true crime rock musical” about alleged axe murderer Lizzie Borden, is a fierce, feminist, modern musical – and the world is finally ready for it!
Reviewing ‘Lizzie’: True crime meets feminist rock musical
Lauren Drew, Maiya Quansah-Breed, Mairi Barclay, Shekinah McFarlane. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Lizzie, “the true crime rock musical”, tells the story of Lizzie Borden, an American woman tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. Whilst I have been fascinated by this case for around a decade, I had no idea there was a musical based on the story. The original production and the European premiere (Denmark and London) gained little traction. As the cast of this new production (the first UK-built version) told me at the launch event, the show was ahead of its time and audiences were not quite ready for it back then, but Six The Musical has popularised gig musicals and feminist theatre.

Lizzie begins shortly before the murders. The show opens with a thundering show-stopper, ‘The House of Borden’, which is led and stolen by Mairi Barclay (Mother Goose) as the Borden family’s maid. Whilst her name is Bridget, the Borden girls ignorantly call her “Maggie”, the name of their previous maid. The show has a lot of fun with this. Barclay chews up the scenery whenever she’s around.

Lizzie is played by Lauren Drew, who won a WhatsOnStage Award for the recent revival of Legally Blonde. This show is a far cry from that fluffy, feel-good musical. It’s funny, yes, but the comedy is black, and Lauren goes very dark. She transitions from a troubled young woman into a cold-blooded killer, flipping from indifferent to delighted in the aftermath of her parent’s murder (or “Mr Borden and his wife“, as the Borden sisters remind everyone). She’s a joy to watch (and a little scary).

Shekinah McFarlane, who starred alongside Drew in the second and third UK tours of Six, shines as Lizzie’s sister, Emma. Her lion-like voice was made for this musical. Emma goes away for a while and is even more formidable upon her return, with a Diana Ross-like mane symbolising her strength. She is determined to help her sister get away with murder.

The heart of the musical is Lizzie’s neighbour and lover, Alice, played by Manchester’s own Maiya Quansah-Breed, who earned an Olivier nominee for starring in the original cast of Six. Alice has an inner conflict between Lizzie and morality.

I have loved Maiya’s voice since the first time I heard it. It’s soft but powerful, angelic whilst equally fierce. In Lizzie, she lets her softer notes shine, but her voice is no less beautiful. The performances cannot possibly be faulted. This is a killer cast.

Shekinah McFarlane, Lauren Drew, Maiya Quansah-Breed, Mairi Barclay. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

I have seen several shows at Hope Mill Theatre over the years, and I never cease to be impressed by what they do with such a small space. In this show, the set consists of the interior of a barn-like house, which feels cold and bleak. Its pale grey colour allows for images to be projected onto it.

I especially love the door at the back of the stage. During the murder scene (spoiler), the door opens to reveal a plastic sheet, which Drew can be seen through as she commits heinous acts of violence. The sheet is digitally covered in blood. It’s incredible.

The choreography, as always, is striking. The show was directed and choreographed by co-founder, CEO and Executive Producer William Whelton (as he told us at the launch event, he’s a control freak). Whelton turns his troupe of actors into a girl band. Jonathan at The Theatre Talk hilariously compared the quartet to Little Mix (and it’s obvious which girl is which).

The actors wear historically correct clothing, with the addition of microphones. In the original production, the cast wore modern rock clothing and used mics. The contrast between traditional clothing and mics is interesting, and I appreciate that the creatives want to create a gig-like feel to the show, but the sudden use of mics can feel a bit jarring and gimmicky, but that’s my only criticism of the creative decisions.

I love that the cast performs most of the final number in modern rock chick clothing, before a curtain call medley. Not only does it feel like a rock concert but the implication is that this historical story of female subjugation (and breaking free) remains relevant.

The score is sublime. It’s a rock musical but there are also ballads. Nothing quite compares to the mighty opening number but every song is aurally pleasing.

The book has a few issues. I’m familiar with the story but I was sometimes a little unsure of things.

In this version of events (spoiler), Lizzie was abused by her father, who plans to cut her and Emma out of his will, leaving everything to his new wife.

It must be noted that this is merely a theory; there is no evidence for it. On the contrary, Lizzie was said to adore her father. It’s possible that she was, indeed, innocent, but, of course, the idea that a young woman killed her parents makes a much more interesting story – and portraying Lizzie as a victim of abuse is the only way to justify the murders and make Lizzie a protagonist, albeit an anti-hero.

Hope Mill does not play it safe. They offer real variety – I mean, their last musical was Rodgers and Hammerstein and their next is drag – and they excel at everything.

Lizzie is a fierce, feminist, modern musical, and I think the world is finally ready for it. The production runs at Hope Mill Theatre until September 30 and tours the UK until December 16 2023.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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