"My nights are trash and vaudeville"
Director Sam Yates knows exactly what he is doing. Within seconds of the opening number of Murder Ballad finishing, Ramin Karimloo has got his t-shirt off and we're treated to the sight of one of the finest physiques in the West End. A little light-heartedly lascivious you might think, but it is symptomatic of what this production finds it has to do in order to elevate the material to an intermittently striking piece of musical theatre.
A mostly sung-through rock musical, Murder Ballad follows the emergent love triangle between a trio of New Yorkers. Sara loves hard rock and hard drink and in bad boy bartender Tom, finds a passionate but unhealthy sexual connection. Poet Michael is about as different as they can get but it is to him that Sara eventually turns, but though a husband and then daughter has its conventional appeal, she can't quite kick the habit of the violent Tom. And as we're told from the beginning, someone's gonna die.
Juliana Nash's music has an authentic rock feel to it, especially as played by Sean Green's band, though it could usefully introduce a little more tonal variety. But Julia Jordan's book has bigger weaknesses with so compressed a timeline, neither Tom nor Michael are afforded any kind of meaningful characterisation aside from their attraction to Sara and for all the noisy dramatics and heightened emotion, the plot ends up fairly hollow.
But all is not lost, far from it, and that's where Yates comes in. Casting his show to the hilt lends it real musical heft in the form of bona fide stars Karimloo and Kerry Ellis as Tom and Sara, Norman Bowman is good as nice-guy-with-a-dark-side Michael and the cherry on the cake (or should that be shamrock in the Guinness) is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt's sensational turn as the narrator of all that occurs, a role that only increases in importance.
So a bit of a mixed bag, but it's good to see contemporary musical theatre stretching itself and to get to see the glee with which Ellis and Karimloo attack these songs, a world away from the roles for which they are both best known.
Running time: 85 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 3rd December
This review was originally written for LondonTheatre1