In the same way Jack the Ripper has become more of a dark fable than a true crime story about a man brutally murdering five East End women, so the case of Lizzie Borden has passed into Massachusetts folklore.
The legend goes that Lizzie – a hysterical 32-year-old spinster – killed her father and ‘evil’ stepmother with an axe in the summer of 1892 in order to inherit the family’s sizable fortune built by her dad’s casket manufacturing business - yes, caskets. Foreboding at its finest.
The story captured the local imagination for its brutality and the fact the only suspect was Lizzie, who was tried and later acquitted – because how could a lady be capable of such a heinous crime?
Over 120 years later, the murders are as much legend as fact. There have been Hollywood retellings, including 2018’s ‘Lizzie’ starring Kristen Stewart, and the suspected murderess acting as the meat and potatoes for many true crime and revisionist podcasts, including ‘Crime Junkie’ and ‘You’re Wrong About’. You can even book a stay at the Borden House, said to be one of the most haunted places in America, if you fancy being scared shitless for the night.
Now a musical take comes in the shape of ‘Lizzie’, a 100-minute punk-rock musical playing at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until early December. The cast is made up of four women who play Lizzie (Lauren Drew), Emma, Lizzie’s sister (Shekinah McFarlane), the Bordens’ neighbour, Alice (Maiya Quansah-Breed) and the family maid, Bridget (Mairi Barclay).
Written by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner, ‘Lizzie’ first debuted in New York back in 2009 and has become quite the cult affair, with numerous productions globally, including a limited 2017 run at the Greenwich Theatre. William Whelton’s new production is arguably more sensitive, inclusive and nuisance than its previous UK outing: he introduces an all-female band and doesn’t aim for the cheap laughs by scrapping scenes where Bridget is dressed up as a comedy dominatrix.
In case you’d forgotten which show you were here to see, a bloody axe is placed centre-stage to set the scene, ahead of the opening performance of ‘The House of Borden’, a ‘Six’-style ensemble number which introduces the main characters. In the middle of giving her version of events, Bridget calls Lizzie ‘not the brightest bird’, which is a recurring theme throughout the show.
Drew’s anti-hero comes across as juvenile and vulnerable, a distracted dreamer: an outsider who finds solace talking to pigeons in the barn. And as the story moves on we get an insight into the potential motives for the crimes. ‘This is Not Love’ is a confessional detailing Lizzie’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father; ‘Gotta Get Outta Here’ speaks to her general paranoia; with ‘Why Are All These Heads Off’ a song about Mr Borden decapitating her closest allies: the pigeons. Who knows, maybe if he’d left the bird girl be, things woulda turned out different.
What’s interesting is that we’re left with no doubt that Lizzie’s guilty. It’s up to the audience to decide if greed, revenge or coercion is why she did it. It’s a refreshing choice and gives armchair detectives something new to smoke in their pipe. Other stylistic takes fall a bit flat though. A lesbian storyline adds very little in the way of substance or plot, and the cast comes out in modern-day Haim-inspired outfits to sing out the punters for no other reason than to show off the styling department's CVs.
The second half is when the musical really hits its stride. Mairi Barclay steals the show as Bridget, expertly draping a veil of madness over the production with her haunting vocals while adding levity with physical comedy and breaking the fourth wall: ‘There's no AC, it's August, and it's 95 degrees. Well, you do the math.’
Lizzie and Emma’s relationship also becomes a focal point as they close ranks in the wake of their parents’ deaths. ‘What the F#%k Now, Lizzie?’ is a laugh-out-loud number performed by Drew and McFarlane in the aftermath of the murders, with ‘Burn the Old Thing Up’ showing off the pair’s singing chops and harmonies.
It’s not perfect, but that’s almost to be expected when a show about four women is refracted through the lens of three male writers then amplified by drums and bass. The absence of the stepmother figure leaves too many dots to be connected and at times the set, entirely made up of the family barn, is so dimly lit it’s hard to see who’s singing. Then there’s the messaging. Is it a cautionary tale about not marrying young? A rally cry for female empowerment and sisterhood? A convoluted PETA advert? Or just an excuse to mash up murder and rock music?
Whatever the answer, it's a fun night out that soars through the bumps thanks to its catchy group numbers, and is another example of how good an all-female cast can be. Maybe that’s the message. Yep, let’s go with that.