Review: Murder Ballad (Arts Theatre)

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo star in this new musical

As Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap proved, it’s important not to give away who did it in a whodunit. Which means I won’t be explaining the entire plot of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s new musical Murder Ballad, getting its UK premiere here with an A-list musical theatre cast.

Thankfully, Murder Ballad isn’t quite as creaky as Christie’s 64 year-old play. But it doesn’t fare well in the originality department. The plot is a love story that comes to a head one night in a bar in New York where Sara and her husband Michael confront Sara’s old boyfriend Tom, who has been a (fairly big) reason for the breakdown of their marriage.

The musical saves all its surprises for the end, which means getting to the dramatic denouement is a bit of a chore. We follow Sara and Tom's young, intense relationship, Sara's happier nuptials with Michael and the birth of their child. Everything seems fine until Tom pops back into Sara's life. So far so predictable.

Jordan and Nash’s songs are a rock and pop melange and they are often great fun, delivered with brilliant raw roughness by the cast. But the sung-through nature of the piece, and the stock characters, mean we never end up caring about Sara’s situation. Which is a problem because that’s basically all there is to care about. Several of the plot points – which I won't reveal for fear of spoilering the show – also feel both oddly incidental and more than a little unbelievable.

Kerry Ellis plays Sara and her voice is impressive, especially with these sort of rocky numbers. But the scenes between her and Ramin Karimloo‘s Tom are horribly lacking in chemistry. Director Sam Yates has them rolling around on the floor in saucy clinches a lot and these sections feel very clunky. Poor Ellis has to dress and undress on stage so many times that, the night I saw it, she got into more than one tangle.

But the cast are pretty much made for these songs and it is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt‘s Narrator that manages to keep us engaged over the 90 minute run time. She is an enigmatic delight, filled with attitude as she pouts and flouts her way around the stage, delivering the songs with beguiling sassiness.

A true murder ballad needs to be filled with bitter wickedness and sharply observed ironies. It needs to revel in the darkness of bloody murder. But this one is all bark and no bite.

Murder Ballad runs at the Arts Theatre until 3 December.