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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

Parade, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s musical, picked up nine Tony nominations when it premiered in New York. Now, the team at the Donmar Warehouse has brought the true story of convicted murderer Leo Frank to London, with Guys And Dolls choreographer Rob Ashford taking up directorial duties. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience.

The American South in 1913 is a difficult place to be for a Jewish Yankee businessman from Brooklyn, New York. Despite being married to a southerner, Leo Frank makes no attempts to iron out the wrinkles. Head down, eyes on his books, this fastidious, serious little man ignores Confederate Memorial Day celebrations (he is a Yankee after all) and spends the public holiday in his office, scrutinising the books of the pencil factory where he is superintendent. Later that day, a 13-year-old factory girl, Mary Phagan, is found murdered in the basement of the factory.

Based on real events, Uhry and Brown’s musical tells the gripping story of what happened to Frank after the discovery of the body. Politics, religion, a press frenzy and the girlish imaginations of Phagan’s young co-workers, (reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), put Frank on trial for the crime despite only circumstantial evidence. The testimonial of Jim Conley, sweeper at the factory and himself an ex-crim, convicts Frank and sends him to death row.

Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford in his directorial debut, this is a cleverly crafted, nuanced production. No straightforward miscarriage of justice here, the ambiguity of the piece is such that it encourages an inkling of doubt – an unfair trial, certainly, but perhaps Frank did do it, after all. Bertie Carvel depicts Frank as a tightly-wound package of nervous gestures and, though it is clear his cold, sharp-tongued nature is symptomatic of his own feelings of insecurity and exclusion in this unfamiliar land, it does him no favours in the trial against a bunch of witnesses determined to see someone pay for the murder of their angel-faced child.

And yet, Frank elicits more sympathy in act two, when, languishing in jail and pawing over law books, he finds a warmth towards his devoted wife Lucille (Lara Pulver) that was formerly missing. He finally manages to express his love for her, in an achingly touching scene that makes the tragic end even more heart-wrenching.

Despite this being a serious subject matter, Brown’s musical score is both moving and joyous, taking its cues from the rhythms and musical styles of the era. Equally, Ashford’s distinctive choreography lifts the story. Jim Conley’s witness statement That’s What He Said is an upbeat gospel-style piece (performed by the richly voiced Shaun Escoffery); while the verdict in the trial is greeted with a strangely gruesome cabaret that makes Frank’s predicament seem even more chilling. Equally, a touching ballad by Leo and Lucille, a spine-tingling blues number by Conley and the rousing, military opener and finale make this a diverse musical score.

The truth about Phagan’s death remains a mystery. Whether or not Frank did it is for you to decide. Either way, the musical is a desperately sad depiction of the political and social circumstances of the time which led a fish out of water to drown.

Parade plays until 24 November.



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