Theatre review: Murder Ballad @ Arts Theatre, London West End

Adam Wollerton

Murder Ballad  is the latest musical to take residence at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End, running until 3 December 2016. When I received the invite down to this production, I couldn’t wait to see what this story of dangerous love and desire had to offer. It may be less well known to those outside the realms of musical theatre, but with a cast featuring Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo, it would be a crime to not venture inside.

So what is Murder Ballad and where does it sit alongside its West End neighbours? Well, with the surge of new musicals hitting London over the last year, a musical has to be something special to stand out amongst the crowd. And Murder Ballad could just be it – as a gritty rock musical, its score, presentation, and cast have something unique to offer.

At its heart, the production is a rock musical, with an amazing score from Juliana Nash featuring powerful guitar and drum based songs playing in harmony to the book by Julia Jordan. However, the score has beautiful movement with great seamless blending from belting ballads through to much more subtle, intimate moments. One song that stuck with me, and is so cleverly written that when it reappears later in the show your heart sinks, is ‘Promises’. This song is a treat when sang by Kerry Ellis, who plays Sara, and especially Norman Bowman (Finding Neverland) as Michael whose voice has a warmth and safety to it that lifts your mouth into an instant smile. When things turn a little sour later in the production though, the reprise of the song ‘Promises’ goes from sending smiles round the audience to feelings of shared regret with the character of Sara and really makes your heart wrench. No spoilers, but this production, just like its score, will have you going down a murderous trek of emotional ups and downs with its characters.

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In contrast to ‘Promises’, another song that left an imprint on my mind was ‘Mouth Tattoo’ – a real vocal showdown between two of the leads, Sara and Tom, the latter who is played by Ramin Karimloo, a titan of West End (Phantom of the Opera). You can imagine how this rock ballad sounded! This song marks the epitome of the musical and the pivotal point where the plot takes its turn and the seed is planted that grows into those namesake murderous thoughts and intentions.

So far, I have mentioned the three leading roles but there is a fourth person on the stage who is seemingly uninvolved and oversees the action. She guides the audience through the love triangle story, linking together scenes from a timeline that spans a number of years highlighting and pinpointing critical moments in the development leading up to the pinnacle scene. This person is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Flashdance, In The Heights) as the Narrator. Hamilton-Barritt’s voice is made for a rock musical. Her husky tones and rasp are controlled and behind all that is a flawless belt. Furthermore, as a narrator, her ability to gain your trust as the audience is brilliant. Her role is steeped in mystery and darkness. How does she know the whole story about these characters? How does she know the deep, dark desires of our leading roles? Hamilton-Barritt is perfect in her role, with the precise balance of humour, cheekiness, and vocal talent that it’s very easy to go with her and believe everything she’s telling you. But is she completely trustworthy in this murderous tale? Well, all comes out in the final scenes and, without giving anything away, it’s a finale to die for – both visually and vocally!

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Speaking of visuals, Murder Ballad, in terms of a West End show, will be portrayed as modest to most audiences. The setting is rather simplistic, however it’s perfect for the feel of this show. This is a production of raw emotion, deadly lies, and a rock score to match so Richard Kent as Set and Costume Design does a wonderful job of carrying this onto stage. Now, to the eye, this is a simple production when you first enter the auditorium to a single illuminated chair graced by the wonderful Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. But, when this production is in full swing we have such technical additions as a rotating stage creating some great tableux-esque moments adding a lovely depth to the scenes, and  there’s the use of video across the back screens which is incredible and adds that extra touch when it’s needed, much credit to Director Sam Yates and the technical team for establishing those concepts. Finally, the raw approach to the presentation of this musical, such as the smaller details like on stage prop and costume changes, allow an interaction between the cast and the narrator so that you know these stories are somehow linked – and even at points, this allows for a little comedy!

There’s much to credit about Murder Ballad, but the best way to give praise to everyone in the line-up behind this production is to grab a ticket and get down to the Arts Theatre and see it! The show runs until 3 December 2016 and is a strictly limited run, so don’t miss your chance to see a rock musical that will leave your mind branded by love.

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About Adam Wollerton

Adam is a Writer and Director of Off-West End and West End Theatre Productions. He is also the Co-Founder of Curious Tales Theatre Company and is the author of LoveStuck: A New Musical.