Combining 'true crime' and 'punk-rock' genres might seem like an unlikely pairing, but it's a surprisingly harmonious blend in Lizzie. This thrilling, haunting and deliciously macabre production delves into the controversial story of Lizzie Borden, the woman accused of brutally murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. Her trial became a media sensation, inspiring numerous music, radio, film, television and even a folk rhyme. Premiering in New York in 2009 and recently gracing the stage at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre before embarking on a UK tour, this punk rock musical takes a unique approach to retelling this infamous true crime story.


Directed and choreographed by William Whelton, and featuring music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Marner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, Lizzie immerses its audience in an intimate setting at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, adding to the sense of excitement and intrigue. The story of Lizzie Borden, portrayed by the enigmatic Lauren Drew, is skillfully unfolded through her interactions with three significant women in her life: the Borden family housekeeper, Bridget (Mairi Barclay), her older sister Emma (Shekinah McFarlane), and Lizzie's lover, Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed). These interactions provide a glimpse into Lizzie's backstory, offering a multifaceted view of her character. Besides boasting an all-female cast, the production also features an all-female band under the guidance of Musical Director Honor Halford-MacLeod. This choice fittingly reflects the theme of girl power and how these four women come together to support each other, even though, in Lizzie's case, their support may have been misguided.


The strength of this production lies in its catchy, raw, and gritty punk rock music, which is expertly performed by the talented cast of four. Each cast member has their moment to shine, and the harmonies are brilliantly complex and beautiful, often bringing the house down. However, it is Drew and Quansah-Breed's vocals that truly steal the show. Drew's powerful vocal performance in 'This Is Not Love' is complemented by her skilful acting, expertly navigating the more vulnerable aspects of Lizzie's character, as well as her darker and more menacing persona as the story unfolds. Quansah-Breed's rendition of 'Will You Stay?' is deeply moving, heartfelt and divine, adding an emotional depth to their risqué relationship. 


The use of hand-held microphones throughout the performance enhances the concert feel of the show, adding a contemporary touch to the mix of old and new elements. While the choreography at times felt jarring, it was quickly overshadowed by the powerful singing and emotional storytelling.


The set and lighting design by Andrew Exeter effectively draw the audience into the action. The incorporation of pigeons in and outside the auditorium is a nice touch, seamlessly connecting the world of the stage to the outside world. This attention to detail adds to the overall atmosphere and engagement of the production.


In today's musical theatre landscape, it's nearly impossible not to draw comparisons to the popularity of musicals like Six, which also emphasises the reclamation of women's stories and is presented in a concert-style format. Both productions showcase strong female characters and their struggles. However, it's worth noting that Lizzie predates Six by several years, premiering in 2009. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time with its punk rock style and innovative storytelling approach. This fresh perspective on the genre is poised to attract a new audience, particularly those intrigued by history and true crime narratives. Lizzie is truly a bloody axe-excellent production that I’d kill to watch again and again. 

Lizzie plays at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 2nd December.


Review: Caleb Lee        Photo: Pamela Raith