The Edinburgh Fringe has been a launchpad for shows ever since a Czech émigré took those Hamlet bystanders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and spun them into a legendary career. The six wives of Henry VIII, the life of a young woman mourning and f*cking, the Fringe has been a zeitgeist for breakout hits ever since. If the early signs are that the 2023 version of that show has not been identified, 2022 found it with Kathy And Stella Solve A Murder – originally produced in the Paines Plough Roundabout season and now newly expanded to a two-act version from Francesca Moody Productions and opening in Bristol before moving to Manchester – and then surely an extended London run.
For Jon Brittain and Matthew Floyd’s work is exquisite musical comedy gold, given a simple but effective staging by Brittain and co-director Fabian Aloise, which embraces a Fringe roughness but adds additional glitz and an hour of material (plus interval) from its original run.
Kathy and Stella are two true crime nuts from Hull, who record a weekly podcast in their garage and who find sanctuary and safety in the stories of murder they consume. When their favourite true crime author – the woman who discovered the truth about the Hull decapitator – is left without a head, it’s up to the two of them to investigate and claim their own 15 minutes of fame.
From the opening chords welcoming us to the podcast, Floyd Jones’s score plays straight through, a full-blown pop opera, spinning delicious rhymes with Northern inflection, the music infectious if not instantly earworms, with belting big notes at the end of each tune that is systematic of contemporary musicals.
The hard-working small band is situated to one side, and the stage remains uncluttered, asking its audience to use its imagination to convey the various locations – from the garage to police headquarters, the local pub to MurderCon where big revelations are made. It allows the action to flow and its Scooby Doo mystery keeps its audience guessing right to the end. Brittain’s text touches on interesting points about why true crime is so popular, particularly among those who identify as female, those most likely to be victims of the crimes the shows depict, but ultimately its real heart is in the friendship between the two misfits at its centre.
Bronté Barbé’s nerdy Kathy and Rebekah Hinds’s more bolshy Stella are a terrific double act, nailing their big notes with aplomb and carrying the show’s ever-building momentum with real skill. In the end, we really care about them and their lifelong friendship. Jodie Jacobs has fun in a range of roles, from sunglasses-attired murder victim (and her brother and sister) to the frazzled police constable investigating the murder, TJ Lloyd makes a surprisingly sweet duo as a Mum and friend who provides patience and kindness to nervous Kathy, while Imelda Warren-Green as the podcast obsessed Erica, delivers an ever increasingly deranged performance with the kind of face contortions that Rik Mayall spent years honing.
In almost doubling its run time since it first appeared, it has both deepened the relationship between its central pair and overstretches the material a little (its flashbacks to the pair’s evolving friendship through school seems a bit pointless). Yet, small caveats aside, it succeeds in providing a terrific night of theatre, blasting a real jolt of energy, as the ever-building new British musical continues to make its mark.