MATTHEW Parker’s revival of a play built around two young men who killed a 14-year-old boy in Chicago 98 years ago – and escaped the noose for their heinous crime – is as captivating a piece of theatre as you are likely to see this year.
I implore you to get down to the cosy, compact and resilient Jermyn Street Theatre in London’s West End before the play ends on February 5 and bag a seat. You will not be disappointed. You will be gripped, enthralled and maybe a little traumatised by what you see. It will trigger a cocktail of emotions that will leave you dizzy, but wanting more.
Although the story is gruesome and the characters despicable, Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, sucks you in and doesn’t let you go until the very last minute when one of the characters (Nathan Leopold) finds out whether he will be allowed to walk free after 34 years of incarceration.
Based on the book, music and lyrics of Stephen Dolginoff (culminating in a 2005 show off Broadway) the musical tells the true story of two young friends – Nathan (Bart Lambert) and Richard Loeb (Jack Reitman). Their relationship in their late teens and early twenties spiralled out of control and into truly sickening territory. All the more scary given they were intelligent individuals from wealthy families – with long careers as lawyers beckoning.
It’s told by Leopold from prison as he awaits the verdict on whether his latest (fifth) request for parole will be granted – the story then unfolds through extended flashbacks.
Although both are despicable, it’s Loeb who is the more evil. He’s supremely confident (on the surface at least), pumped up with self-belief, manipulative, controlling and a fearsome bully. He treats Leopold as a glorified fag and passionately believes he is a superior human being (he’s a devotee of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche). He genuinely believes he is untouchable.
In contrast, Leopold – all nervous twitches and slightly awkward – dotes on Loeb and will do anything to curry favour. ‘Everyone wants Richard,’ he says. ‘ I need Richard.’
They sign a contract in blood which means Leopold will do literally anything that Loeb commands him to carry out – in return for Loeb’s undivided attention after he has fulfilled the task asked of him. Leopold wants Loeb all for himself. He’s obsessed with him.
The result is acts of criminality (thrilling in their eyes) that ratchet up a notch every time they are committed – arson to begin with and ultimately ending in the abduction of a child (Bobby Franks) and his horrific and mindless murder.
A quest to get Bobby’s parents to pay a ransom fee then goes wrong when the boy’s body is discovered before they can extract any money from them. Only a brilliant lawyer lets them escape the hangman’s rope although Loeb is subsequently murdered in prison.
The success of this macabre play stems from a combination of brilliant acting, astute direction and a masterful performance on the piano from Benjamin McQuigg who keeps the play’s tempo racing along at a comfortable rate of knots. He does Dolginoff’s magical (but unsettling) score full justice.
Lambert and Reitman are evil personified as Leopold and Loeb, Reitman especially. The scene where he joyously lures Bobby (never seen) into his roadster before murdering him is magnificently grotesque. On the surface, he’s all sweetness and smiles – a snake charmer – but underneath lies a bubbling mass of serpents and evilness. Living hell. Loeb’s hell.
Reitman, tall and handsome, is superb as his Loeb swaggers, bullies and murders his way into prison. Lovely on the outside, rancid within. Afterwards, in a fascinating Q & A hosted by the theatre’s artistic director Tom Littler, Reitman said that the role of Loeb left him ‘exhausted’. The only way he could deal with the part was to compartmentalise it, and leave Loeb behind in the theatre at night when he left. (I wouldn’t also sleep overnight in the theatre with Loeb hanging around).
Lambert is equally brilliant as Leopold, effectively highlighting both his gawkiness and his infatuation with Loeb. Having played the same roles at the Hope Theatre back in 2019 – again under the direction of Parker – Lambert and Reitman have perfected the art of perfect (evil) harmony. They connect like magnets.
In the Q & A, Parker admitted that the play presented difficulties, especially in terms of ensuring the two criminals were not inadvertently glorified – and the play not ending up being offensive.
It is to Parker’s great credit, and that of the cast and production team, that these difficulties are overcome. The play does not glorify violence, nor offend. Far from it. Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb is theatre at its glorious and thrilling best.
‘This is where magic happens,’ the programme says of the Jermyn Street Theatre. Absolutely.
Two final thoughts. Wednesday’s showing of the play (January 26) will be preceded by a discussion about the staging of violence in art (are some issues too distressing – and triggering – to put on stage?).
Secondly, the cast of – and production team behind – Rain And Zoe Save The World were present on Thursday 20 January. Their show starts on 10 February. Littler loves it. Check it out.
Photos by STEVE GREGSON