Preview: Thrill Me – The Leopold & Loeb Story

Lara Moran 25 November 2019
Image credit: Jonathan van Es

I signed up to preview Thrill Me because, quite frankly, I knew it would be easy to sell.

Its cast, I quickly realised, don’t agree, as they point out how difficult they’ve found it to convince people that the Leopold and Loeb story makes for an entertaining show. I guess there are two kinds of people in the world: you can make up your own mind as to which camp you fall into.

The musical is based on true events that took place in 1924 in Chicago, when young lovers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb decided to murder a child in an attempt to commit the perfect crime. Director Louise Dai first saw a performance of it in China three years ago and it made a lasting impression on her; the Cambridge theatre scene provided her with the perfect opportunity to put on a production that fit her own vision.

I joined the crew for an afternoon rehearsal at the Corpus Playroom last weekend. When I walk in everyone is still slightly buzzed and frantic because they only just figured out how to get the sound of the electric piano to work, but as soon as Alex Hancock (Nathan) and Joseph Folley (Richard) get on stage to do a run-through of the song ‘Superior’, all of their jumpiness disappears.

We’re both superior to all

We’ve got more intelligence than anyone

We roll Chicago like a ball

And we’re far more efficient than the mob is, Babe.

The song appears about halfway through the production, but it’s a good introduction to the tone of this musical. I get to hear it a few times, as they make some last adjustments to the scene’s blocking, but the electrifying atmosphere is already there. Folley and Hancock have previously worked together on productions of Ghost: The Musical and The War of the Worlds, and it’s their palpable chemistry that gives the production its edge.

‘When you look at previous productions, you’ll see that the actors portraying Nathan and Richard will be in their late twenties or even early thirties. I think that having student actors – actual young people – is what makes our interpretation stand out,’ Louise later tells me.

Thrill Me is a fascinating portrayal of obsession, depicting the vicious cycle of manipulation that keeps Nathan and Richard together. While it is Richard who masterminds the couples’ criminal activities, his partner is not an oblivious victim. ‘Nathan is very obsessive and manipulative,’ Hancock says, ‘and it’s easy to not see that because Richard is evil in a much more overt sense.’

Dai and her musical director, Daniel Quigley, were eager to tease out more of this tension. ‘It’s been fun to work with Louise to create this new dynamic between the characters, giving Nathan more agency and complicating Richard’s character,’ says Quigley. ‘It’s also been exciting to translate this characterisation into the music. […] The music is a good way to get down to the personal level of this story, and a lot of other ways of telling it tend to become very factual very quickly.’

The musical form also highlights the inherent melodrama and absurdity of the tale in a way that balances its pathos and its humour. When I bring up its moments of comedy, everyone is quick to point out that Thrill Me is not a funny musical. It does, however, includes a song titled ‘My Brother John’, in which Richard makes the case for killing his sibling with arguments that become increasingly ridiculous (‘If we killed my brother John, then I’d get the bigger room.’) The musical allows such occasional flashes of outrageousness to be accommodated in its overarching sense of tragedy. By the time I’ve sat through more or less a full run of the show, and Hancock sings its closing number, I am impressed by how well it succeeds at giving you a sense of the real people behind the story.

Thrill Me is Louise Dai’s passion project, and as we walk to the ADC to drop off a cable, she tells me about her experience with getting involved in theatre at Cambridge.

She knew from the start that her only goal was to put on this production, but getting the required experience quickly turned out to be difficult to balance with her degree. “The theatre scene here can be very intense,” she says. Instead of racking up Camdram credits, she did thorough research on how to pitch a show; her meticulous planning and impressively in-depth understanding of the musical ultimately got her the gig. While she is not yet sure if this will be her last foray into student drama, the result of the hard work she put in with Quigley and her producer Melanie Chen certainly makes for an impressive directorial debut. Thrill Me is an utterly captivating show, and we are lucky to get the chance to see such a production brought to life in Cambridge.