Friday, 25 November 2016

Murder Ballad

Julia Jordan’s rock musical is more soggy than steamy in this tale of a good girl taking a walk on the wild side

Written by Richard Barber


When playwright and lyricist Julia Jordan found herself in a two-week theatre workshop in New York a few years back, she hastily called her rock musician friend Juliana Nash to join her on an unknown project. ‘I didn’t have a play or a musical in mind,’ recalls Jordan. So she was up against it when challenged to present her idea to the company of actors – and to do so in 30 minutes flat. Put on the spot, she came up with a ‘Murder Ballad’, a sung-through ensemble piece that combined popular music with sex and death. And so Murder ballad was born.

It would be nice in the circumstances to report that this almost-instant flight of fancy really took wing. Nice but, sadly, not true. After various productions Off-Broadway, the musical gets its UK premiere at the arts theatre in Covent Garden and it’s a curiously uninvolving affair. Richard-Barber-colour-176

The story could scarcely be simpler. Middle-class Sara (Kerry Ellis) has gone bad, living in a squat in Manhattan, drinking and smoking too much and in a highly charged, dysfunctional relationship with tattooed Tom (Ramin Karimloo). She’s rescued, somewhat implausibly, by sober-sided Michael (Norman Bowman) with whom she moves into a nice apartment in a better part of town, gives birth to a daughter and lives happily ever after.

Except that she doesn’t. A decade into their marriage, Sara is bored and hankers after her edgy relationship with Tom. So she seeks him out, begins a torrid affair, Michael finds out and murder and mayhem ensue.

And that’s it. It’s a story as old as the hills, but this one signally lacks dramatic tension or momentum. It’s also pretty important that, since all the ‘dialogue’ is sung, you need to be able to understand what the four principal players are singing. And that’s not always the case.

The overwhelming exception is Kerry Ellis, a seasoned West End trouper, whose clarity of diction and unforced singing are exemplary. Both male actors aren’t too bad either, and, even when you can’t quite make out what they’re on about, you get the general thrust.

But Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, prowling the stage as the doom-laden Narrator, is often inaudible or her words are indistinguishable, and since she’s the one telling the story, this is quite a serious shortcoming.

The band’s good, though, and the show is mercifully short at 80 minutes, although that shouldn’t really be a recommendation.

Until 3 December at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London WC2: 020-7836 8463, artstheatrewestend.co.uk


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