Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
Or did she? Well, it’s easy enough to refute a good chunk of this well-known rhyme – firstly, Andrew and Abby Borden didn’t receive that many “whacks”, and the murder weapon was a hatchet. Hence the title of Sasha Wilson’s show: Bury The Hatchet. Unlike other iterations of the story (such as the rock musical Lizzie) it plays more like a theatrical ‘true crime’ show, dissecting the evidence and back stories to try and come to a meaningful conclusion about what really happened – all interspersed with the odd song or two.
The tale has become infamous over the years, often linked with the likes of the O. J. Simpson murder case for the public interest it generated – and the ‘not guilty’ verdicts returned.
On 4 August 1892, first Abby (stepmother) and then Andrew Borden (father) were murdered by multiple hatchet blows. The suspicion quickly fell on Lizzie, due to her irrational behaviour, lack of a strong alibi, and frequent contradictions when questioned by the police – though some of this could be explained by the frequent doses of morphine she was receiving to calm her nerves. In June the following year, Lizzie finally comes to trial for the two murders, but is acquitted; the case has remained unsolved to this day.
Despite a running time of around 70 minutes, the show manages to include an incredible amount of detail – going all the way back to Lizzie’s birth, and telling us about her mother’s death, her European tour, the accusations of shoplifting levelled against her, and that her father killed several pigeons in the barn (using a hatchet). Wilson’s text flits around the story, highlighting the enduring relevance of this tale and attempting to get to the bottom of what really happened, via tell-tale clues.
The way it moves between re-enactments, songs and slightly more informal chat is slickly managed, and makes the audience feel included in the evening rather than simply being there as viewers. Staging it with a thrust performance space definitely works (and almost feels like it’s fully in the round at times), though the usual pub theatre issue of two rows of seating being on the same level frustrates this ever so slightly.
The company – comprised of writer Wilson, Joseph Prowen and David Leopold – is committed & enthusiastic, as well as being blessed with spot-on comic timing (be it a self-deprecating comment or a neatly judged aside). They perform and sing all the musical numbers themselves, demonstrating terrific musicianship and gorgeous harmonising, and there are just enough of these musical moments to balance the piece out nicely. The trio are effortlessly engaging and clearly know how to work an intimate space such as this.
My verdict? A clever and engaging presentation of a familiar story, attempting to get to the heart of Lizzie Borden’s character as well as the truth – a thrilling show from start to finish.
Bury The Hatchet runs at The Hope Theatre until 11 August 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.