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Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt

Hope Mill Theatre

September 1-30, 2023; 1hr 40min inc 20min interval

The company of LIZZIE at Hope Mill Theatre. All pics: Pamela Raith
The company of LIZZIE at Hope Mill Theatre. All pics: Pamela Raith
Banner depictinga four and a half star rating

Hope Mill Theatre very rarely puts a foot wrong. From the classics to new writing, it often seems there is nothing the Manchester venue can’t produce peerlessly. But when the team turns to musicals, magic happens at an even higher level - and LIZZIE is no different.

For anyone unfamiliar with the gruesome nursery rhyme, the show tells the story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in a small New England city in 1892.

If that doesn’t sound like natural musical theatre material, remember we are in a post-Spring Awakening world. With microphones occasionally in hand, it is clear the small, all-female cast is channelling Duncan Sheik’s classic as characters throw off stifling repression and abuse.

It is impossible not to think also of SIX: period-cum-punk costumes, contemporary choreography and a sisterhood house-band vibe. But while comparisons are neat, they are unnecessary.

LIZZIE is a brilliant musical in its own right and, under William Whelton’s superb direction, this production is a total triumph.

Reviewers were invited on only the third day of a month-long Manchester run, ahead of a UK tour. But absolutely every element is so flawlessly accomplished that anyone in the audience might be forgiven for assuming this show had been running for years.

Andrew Exeter’s fantastic design perfectly transforms the former Victorian mill into a wooden house of the same era on the other side of the pond. Aside from a few pieces of residential Americana, there is little in the way of home comfort in this glorified barn.

The gaps in the slats of the walls might let in air and light but they mask the evident claustrophobia. Hidden figures pass by as pigeons watch ominously from the top of the set and the theatre’s own beams. It is clear there are no real secrets here.

After the inevitable poetic beginning, each character is neatly introduced - as each might be at an inquest or trial - after which we go straight into the insanely-catchy number The House of Borden.

If you are a writer or composer and you want to know how to get into your musical quickly, then look no further than LIZZIE. The opening is a masterclass from Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt.

The suffocating tension of the first act boils and builds to a show-stopping and blood-splattered finale, before the second half focuses on the trial and the shaky solidarity of the female residents of Fall River, all with music from a great live band in full rock mode.

While the songs aren’t all stellar, there are some real hits.

As the title character, Lauren Drew is nothing short of astounding. She has an extraordinary voice, but this performance is all about her acting. Within a few beats Drew moves from recoiling in a chair - the innocent victim - to standing on her feet, murderous and calculating. Both moods are utterly believable. Attitude, vulnerability, depth - she has it all.

Maiya Quansah-Breed is no stranger to this stage after her amazing performance as Mimi in RENT. She is just as brilliant here as the truthful and pure Alice, harbouring a love that dares not speak its name.

While Alice and Lizzie’s paths are doomed never to cross at the right point for a relationship to truly bloom, the musical does not exist to merely excuse the murderous heart of this sorry story. This is a show that embraces the complexity and unfathomable nature of human behaviour.

Mairi Barclay is hilarious as the Irish maid, whose character represents the gossipy interest that has followed this case since the very beginning. As elder sister Emma, Shekinah McFarlane is also brilliant.

While the performances are all great, LIZZIE is taken to another level with a combination of Dan Light’s video design and Andrew Exeter’s lighting. Neon purples, electric blues and horror-movie greens flood the stage at points, neatly transforming the natural into the fantastical.

Then there are the projections; birds fly as a barn door opens, flames lick high and there is a stunning spread of wings as Lizzie is freed.

Special mention for Rachel Tansey, who has helped to devise some magical costume changes.

This has all the hallmarks of a cleverly programmed cult classic - one that will swiftly become a must-see. Hope Mill Theatre has done it again.

More information and tickets here


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