Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder, Edinburgh Fringe review – brilliantly joyful murder mystery musical

 (Mihaela Bodlovic)
(Mihaela Bodlovic)

A murder mystery musical seems like such a good idea. Yet Stephen Sondheim spent years trying to write one and never quite cracked it – and if he couldn’t do it, you wonder if it’s worth the effort at all. There’s Curtains and Murder For Two and a few other attempts but then, at last year’s Fringe, along came Kathy and Stella who made it look so easy.

After a bunch of rave reviews, producer Francesca Moody (of Fleabag fame) has brought the brilliantly joyful musical back, this time to a bigger venue and with an extra half hour running time.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that this Hull-based true-crime-murder-mystery-cabaret-comedy-musical is so good. Writers Matthew Floyd-Jones and Jon Brittain have each had solo hits: Floyd-Jones is half of comedy duo Frisky and Mannish, while Brittain created Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho.

Where their previous collaboration, A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), looked thoughtfully at depression and lit up the Fringe in 2017, here they turn their talents to lighter fare.

Kathy and Stella are best friends from Hull who record a true crime podcast in their garage. When their favourite true crime author Felicia Taylor – she who solved the notorious case of the Hull Decapitator – is herself found decapitated, Kathy and Stella decide that this could be their shot at fame, and start trying to unravel the mystery.

From the opening minutes, as the duo introduce their podcast, the music pretty much doesn’t stop. It’s all fantastically bouncy piano-led pop, with heavy cabaret vibes, performed by two keyboards, a drummer and a bassist spread out across the width of the stage, on show the entire time.

Bronté Barbé and Rebekah Hinds in Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder (Mihaela Bodlovic)
Bronté Barbé and Rebekah Hinds in Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder (Mihaela Bodlovic)

Part of the show’s brilliance is in Brittain and Fabian Aloise’s co-direction’s direction: there’s barely any set or props (save the odd severed head). Instead the cast come on and off in some rather appealing jumpsuits and we’re left to imagine the garage, the local pub, the police station. That absolute absence of fussiness means that the musical flows and the momentum keeps building, through the ups and downs of Kathy and Stella’s friendship and the ins and outs of the case.

Floyd-Jones gives the cast some really tricky stuff to sing, with belting high notes that come at the climaxes of each song, but the performers tackle it all brilliantly – not least Bronté Barbé’s nerdy Kathy and Rebekah Hinds’s more forthright, more mouthy Stella, their contrasting voices pairing up perfectly.

There’s excellent support, too, from Jodie Jacobs multi-roleing as Felicia, Felicia’s twin sister (yes it’s that kind of silliness) and straight-laced copper Sue Shaw, as well as a memorably over-the-top turn from Imelda Warren-Green as superfan Erica.

If you really want to, you can read deeper things into the show: a swipe at the dodgy ethics of the true crime boom, with its have-a-go mindset, its prurience, its disregard for victims’ families, its tendency to reduce human tragedy into just the gory details or the juicy puzzles; or the insatiable appetites of die-hard fans who will go to great lengths to prove their loyalty to particular podcasts.

But Brittain and Floyd-Jones don’t push those points. Mostly the focus is on Kathy and Stella’s firm friendship and the daft but strangely satisfying Scooby Doo plot. It really is one of the most purely fun shows at the Fringe, and is crying out for a London transfer. It took a while to crack the murder mystery musical, but finally theydunnit, and theydunnit really well.

Underbelly, to August 27; edfringe.com