This is probably the first time you’ve heard song lyrics about 90s amateur sleuth Jonathan Creek, or a metacarpal saw (and if neither of these are new to you, we need your Spotify playlist now). In fact, both of these references are a natural fit for the world of Kathy (Bronté Barbé) and Stella (Rebekah Hinds), true crime podcasters from Hull, recording in a garage and ending each episode with the cheery catchphrase ‘See you next murder’.
They grew up bingeing on books about serial killers – as the more cerebral and panicked Kathy says, this may be something to do with ‘anxiety in a patriarchal world’ – idolising non-fiction writers like Felicia Taylor (Jodie Jacobs, resplendent in sequins and sunglasses), and now they bring their cult interest and their codependent friendship to each carefully crafted episode. However, when they stumble upon a real-life murder and become ‘part of the story’, they’re pushed firmly out of their comfort zone.
If you’re not a fan of the true crime genre, or podcasts in general, don’t be put off; you’ll quickly get the idea, and there is even scrutiny of the ethics of being a true crime fan, down to the £400-a-ticket convention. Beyond the hinted but never explicit gore, Barbé and Hinds are phenomenal as the northern duo, and there’s a ton of tongue-in-cheek wit throughout the songs that carries the story forward and stops it getting too dark; in terms of similar musicals, I’d pair this nicely with Acorn Antiques, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or Legally Blonde. As a true crime podcast fan, I’d add that Kathy and Stella have a far livelier tone than my failsafe choice, They Walk Among Us, hosted by a man whose soporific monotone voice makes even the most gruesome murder spree sound like a discussion on tax returns.
To complement our lively podcast queens, we also have hysterical superfan Erica and friendly mortician Justin, played to perfection by Imelda Warren-Green and TJ Lloyd. I also noticed the overall cast is spot-on not just in terms of talent, but also representing body diversity; with musical theatre still largely guilty of relying on homogenous casting cliches as though we’re in A Chorus Line; casting director Annelie Powell definitely deserves a shoutout.
What’s more, there’s plenty to enjoy in the set design, with crime scene tape, a light-up evidence board, mortuary drawers, and even a live band playing at the edges of the garage. However, on the lighting front, repeated use of flashing or flickering lights added nothing to the drama and really set off my vestibular migraine; beyond my own condition, they can affect people with autism and photosensitive epilepsy. There was a small printed warning displayed on one of the inner doors already inside the theatre, but that isn’t enough to safeguard audiences. I’d urge the lighting designers to ditch this part entirely and just let Kathy and Stella shine.
Ultimately, there’s no great mystery to this musical’s success – it’s witty, topical and distinctive, plus it has real northern heart that I reckon audiences won’t be able to resist. The real crime is to miss out on a ticket.
Music & Lyrics and Musical Direction by Matthew Floyd-Jones
Book & Lyrics and Co-Direction by Jon Brittain
Produced by Francesca Moody Productions, Kater Gordon, Wessex Grove and Fiery Angel, in association with Bristol Old Vic
Co-Directed and Choreographed by Fabian Aloise
Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder! is on at Bristol Old Vic until 30 September 2023, tickets available here. It then moves to Home, Manchester, from 5-21 October 2023.