Murder Ballad is full of ballads of the rock-pop kind and not much murder. There are suspects with similar motives and tunes with similar notes and rhythms. The direction is dull and so are some of the performances, but there is a deal of full bodied singing. It’s not so much a Whodunnit? as a Whytheydunnit?

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I love murder mysteries and I love popular music, so I love murder ballads. But the long held conventional wisdom says that pop/rock music doesn’t move a musical along well because of its repetitive structure and because it is not usually lyric-based. Obviously, quite a few shows challenge this idea, but there is often a stop-the-story quality to many rock musicals, and that is not what they teach us to shoot for in musical theater writing school. But murder ballads, from the traditional “Stagger Lee” thou Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” to Eminem’s “Stan” are storytelling songs by definition, no matter what style they were written in. Sex and murder do lend themselves to drama.

So speaks Julia Jordan, author of Murder Ballad, the 2012 musical she wrote with composer Juliana Nash and which is now having its premiere season at the Arts Theatre. In the hands of director Sam Yates, however, little sustained drama is present in this production, whatever the aspirations of the writing duo, and, almost unbelievably, no sex.

In New York, where Murder Ballad has had two professional outings, neither of them were staged on a proscenium stage. The material does not obviously lend itself to such a staging; it cries out for intimacy, for a sense of dangerously close involvement. The space at the Arts Theatre does not lend itself to such intimacy.

Yates seeks to overcome this through a staging that involves the usual suspects – a revolve, minimalist furnishings, projections, a film noir essence. It’s smoky and gritty in look and feel, but it doesn’t radiate empathy or create a sense of particular intrigue.

Murder mysteries of all types require two simple ingredients: a corpse, and someone – detective, possible future victim, hero, distraught relative or friend – with whom the reader/audience can relate, can share the investigative journey. Here there is an abundance of possible corpses but no one with whom anyone can relate. It’s not that the work precludes empathy – it doesn’t – but Yates’ production does.

Murder Ballad

The set up is simple: someone will experience death by baseball bat. The question is: who? And who will wield the bat? Using a familiar device, a detached narrator, all this is made clear in the opening number. A love triangle is identified, so the pool of possible victims and murderers is clear.

Sara loves/lusts after Tom. It’s an intense relationship. It ends. Sara moves on, settles down with Michael. They are happy, content. They have a child. Then Tom comes back into Sara’s life and she can’t resist him. When Michael finds out about the rekindled affair, a violent confrontation ensues. Someone kills someone in a fit of passion.

There is nothing particularly imaginative or ground-breaking in any of that; the conventions of Music Ballads about murder are all in play. What is interesting derives from the music and the interplay between the characters. There is a final reveal which ought to be surprising, but Yates’ direction ensures that the identity of the murderer is clear almost from the outset.

Startlingly, there is an almost complete lack of chemistry between Kerry Ellis’ Sara and Ramin Karimloo’s Tom. This is so despite some stylised sexual encounters, Karimloo’s penchant for tearing off his tshirt and displaying his honed torso, Ellis stripping to skimpy undergarments and some brandishing of condoms. Overt indicia of fornication is in evidence; irresistible passion is not.

More successful is the relationship between Sara and Norman Bowman’s good guy Michael. But that too suffers from the detached air that Yates overlays across proceedings. The clinical feel suits the stylised violence and gore that eventually erupts, but it cuts against the intensity of feeling that should permanently bubble around Sara.

Murder Ballad

Where the passion is felt most clearly is in the playing of the score. Sean Green presides over a hot, hard-working and insistent trio of musicians who play Nash’s score with gusto and sustained energy. What life this Murder Ballad has comes from Green’s musicality – not to mention the intriguing frisson offered when Oliver Seymour-Marsh and Daniel Francis Owen burst into the action, instruments to the fore.

Variety is not the chief attribute of Nash’s rock and roll score. There is a, perhaps inevitable, sameness about the various songs, but the beats are insistent and interesting and the vocal pyrotechnics the score demands call for virtuoso voices. The final numbers are easily the best and that makes it more likely than not that on exiting the theatre the sense of the exhilaration of those numbers is the predominant memory.

There is no denying, however, that getting to that point involves a lot of mediocre numbers which leave no impression on either character/plot progression or audience engagement.  There are more B side numbers than hit tunes, especially in the static and largely unengaging staging Yates and Movement Director Michela Meazza provide. With the right approach, however, the score could provide a desperate, sizzling undercurrent to the adulterous narrative.

It’s not as if Yates was burdened with an inadequate cast. Ellis, Karimloo, Bowman and Victoria Hamilton-Barrit (who plays the cool, aloof Narrator) are all at the top of their game, have truly remarkable vocal instruments, and have all shown themselves capable of intensely emotional and affecting performances. That they do not burn brightly here is not about them but the way this production has made its choices.

Murder Ballad

Bowman is the best all round performer here. He sings with real style, hits all the notes and imbues the character with a realistic gravitas. You absolutely believe that his Michael adores Ellis’ Sara.

Both Ellis and Karimloo sing well, although, curiously, both seem stretched by the material in unexpected ways. Occasionally, there are pitch issues for both, as indeed there are for Hamilton-Barritt – but this never really impacts on the effect of the rock tunes. Diction, however, is not clear throughout – fine for rock concerts; fatal for musical theatre.

But there is a surprising lack of depth and charm on the acting side for each of Ellis, Karimloo and Hamilton-Barratt. None of them really make their characters work, although Hamilton-Barritt succeeds more often than not, despite the strictures imposed by Yates’ vision.

In the end, the overwhelming feeling is that you have attended a rock concert rather than a fully staged musical. Perhaps that is all that can be expected when Murder Ballad is performed in a space like the Arts Theatre.

More likely, Murder Ballad needs a better director, or at least one that works with its strengths and brings them out.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.