If you like your musicals with a bit of bite, head straight for the Southwark Playhouse to catch Thom Southerland’s revival of this engrossing 1998 award winner by Americans Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry (book).

Set in Atlanta almost a century ago, it’s based on the real-life case of a 13-year-old factory worker, Mary Phagan, who was found raped and murdered on the premises.

Suspicion fell initially on the black night-watchman, Newt Lee, and then on Leo Frank, the well-educated superintendent.

Despite having married a well-connected Southern girl, Jewish New Yorker Frank still remained something of an outsider and the ensuing public reaction to the killing exposed deep seams of anti-Semitism and racism still rife in the Deep South five decades after the end of the Civil War.

The prejudice, the politics and, centrally, the personal relationship between Frank and his loyal wife are all exposed as the case goes to court and beyond.

The production sometimes veers towards the over-busy and the sound balance needs drastic attention (does the traverse staging really necessitate mics?) but the dramatic story and lead performances more than compensate.

Alastair Brookshaw’s Frank is all quivering nervousness as he insists on his innocence, whilst Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the emotional stakes as his loyal wife Lucille.

There’s smooth politicking from Mark Inscoe’s prosecutor (who isn’t above a bit of witness coaching to get the result he wants) and David Haydn’s Governor turns out to have a strong moral streak as well as an easy charm.

But once again it’s Terry Doe (just a year out of drama school) who takes the production to another level.

Grizzled as the original suspect Newt, show-stopping as the ex-con janitor Jim Conley – he steals an already compelling show every time he appears.

Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, SE1 2TF
020 7407 0234
Tube: London Bridge
Until September 17

– Louise Kingsley