Jon Brittan (book and lyrics), Matthew Floyd Jones (music and lyrics)
Produced with Underbelly in Edinburgh and with Bristol Old Vic on tour; Francesca Moody Productions, Kater Gordon, Wessex Grove and Fiery Angel
HOME, Manchester, October 5-21, 2023; 2hr 20 mins
Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder! was an Edinburgh Fringe sell-out hit in 2022. Now it returns in a longer version, touring to Bristol and the current run at HOME in Manchester.
In Edinburgh this summer it was difficult to avoid the hype; even in Manchester it seems to be advertised everywhere, trailed as a hilarious comedy musical of a thrilling whodunnit: “BFFs Kathy and Stella host Hull’s least successful true crime podcast. When their favourite author is killed, they are thrust into a thrilling whodunnit of their own! Can they crack the case (and become global podcast superstars) before the killer strikes again…?”
Certainly the HOME audience loved it, offering an almost universal standing ovation. And there are some outstanding performances: Jodie Jacobs as Felicia, assorted relatives, and detective, has a commanding presence and voice. Success in this style of comedy requires a straight, serious performance with hints of knowingness, recognising the nonsense of it all, which Jacobs hits unfailingly.
I also loved TJ Lloyd, particularly as the nerdy unsure schoolboy transformed to success as a mortuary assistant. His vocal and performance range are impressive, and he is one to watch in future.
Rebekah Hinds as Stella brings immaculate comic timing and a multi-layered voice. More demands are made of Bronte Barbe who, in the more complex role of Stella, develops a character who bonds effectively with the audience.
All the cast members work hard and deliver tight ensemble work at a pace that looks as if it should be exhausting, while remaining fresh, sharp and energetic.
Underlying themes are important, and could be explored more. The question of why so many people are so interested in knowing more about horrific violent crime is touched on. It would be a very different piece of musical theatre if investigated more deeply.
The scenes exploring outsiders and their bonding progress are rewarding, particularly the quieter ones. There is so much music, loud music, that I really enjoyed the spoken conversations. Act two opens with a partially-sung conversation between Stella and Kathy in childhood. Outsider bonding is a fairly common musical theatre theme, and this scene, short, simple, relatively quiet but with a few well-timed Stella barbs shows why it can be so successful.
It many respects the format is is now cliched. Take a subject that isn't fun – gruesome murder, deliver a story in a crazy style, with loud music, plenty of colour and a few themes we can all subscribe to. It has been done before and will be done again.
Somewhere I feel the cast has been a little let down. The show is too long. Sometimes the one-hour standard slot at Edinburgh Fringe is an asset as well as a constraint.
The evening is also simply too loud, right from the start. Even before the curtain rises the auditorium is treated to loud music. Very loud. I couldn’t hear a word of the track playing as I arrived. The following Rihanna track was more decipherable, but largely through familiarity. Rhianna is meant to be loud, but I’ve always been able to hear the words before. This was a major problem throughout the performance and as a result, I lost track of the plot.
The theatre at HOME is kitted out with state-of-the-art audio – qualities well-demonstrated in many other shows. I’d have enjoyed the show much more if lyric audibility had been clearer.
The theatre at HOME is the replacement for Manchester’s much-loved Library Theatre, a theatre, which trailblazed UK regional performances of Brecht and was crucial in developing a local and national audience for Sondheim. Groundbreaking at the time. And you could hear every word.
No matter how light or how heavy a piece of theatre, audibility is crucial. This hard-working cast deserves to be heard
More info and tickets here