Review: London Road, National Theatre

“It’s given us a common cause…”

London Road, with book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music and lyrics by Adam Cork, is a show emerged out of an experimental workshop at the National Theatre, pairing unlikely collaborators to create new pieces of musical theatre. What they focused on was a series of interviews Blythe carried out with the residents of London Road, Ipswich, at the time when police were hunting for a serial killer after five women were found murdered. Why she chose that street was because it was where the murderer lived but her focus was not on him or the victims, but rather the people on the periphery, how the whole thing had affected the other inhabitants and as she revisited them months later, what their response as a community was. The show plays in the Cottesloe and this was a preview performance.

Alecky Blythe is an exponent of verbatim theatre, particularly a technique created by Anna Deavere Smith, whereby she interviews her subjects and then creates theatre by reproducing their words and vocal inflections faithfully, right down to the ums and aahs and you knows, in the performance. Working in the musical form has necessitated a slight departure from the pure verbatim form but also allows for the injection of a little dramatic license in adding emphases and repetition to what could be termed the key phrases of the chorus. Adam Cork’s music fits into the same idea of trying to replicate the speech patterns and feelings and remaining as true to the material as possible, rather than composing a musically coherent score per se, he’s created a series of responses to the text.

Which all leads me to saying it is nigh on impossible to describe the music and do it justice! It is not a musical in the traditional sense, eschewing conventional songs for musical phrasing. It takes in influences from a wide spectrum including popular music, Christmas tunes and even opera: there’s a strong sense of jazz improvisational work in the loose free-flowing nature of much of it but as a body of work, it generally resists easy definition. What it does provide though as an almost operatic intensity at times, especially in the choral work with stirring harmonies and progressions which sit beautifully with the restrained, almost minimalist feel to much of the score.

The end result is therefore something really quite unique, and in my opinion, something rather special. It plays like a low-key documentary at first, the ‘drama’ of the tragic murders is so firmly in the backseat for the most part so that the focus really is on how this community of people has been and continued to be affected by such events happening in their midst, but also the ongoing impact of the media circus which continued until the trial. The issues it focuses on may seem trivial or not particularly charitable, but these are recognisably the concerns of real people: the peculiar fear of knowing there’s a murderer but one targeting prostitutes so many women weren’t necessarily too scared; the indignation felt by the residents as their area is constantly referred to as a red-light district; the nagging desire to know if the murders were carried out in the house on their street or somewhere else. Even the unapologetic attitudes of some, towards the victims, becomes understandable as we begin to get a sense of what it must have been like to have the street where you live be gradually over-run by prostitutes and the men looking for them.

There’s a lot of wry humour in here, the interplay between long-married couples, the amusing realisations of the scale of things – offering a cup of tea to a policeman to find there’s hordes of them and worrying about offending by not making them all one, spotting their houses on the news as intrepid reporters film outside on their street. But what is most moving, and this is Blythe’s point, is the sense of community that this adversity engenders amongst these people, as they realise that a crime of this magnitude really has happened in their quiet town and that the only response is to pull together and find succour and healing collectively.

Norris has staged London Road end-on with two additional rows of seats either side in the ‘pit’, i.e. onstage. The band are placed in a room that hangs over the back part of the stage, creating a dark, sometimes smoke-filled recess from which actors often emerge, to hauntingly great effect in many cases. And in casting such an experienced company, he has really brought a sense of lived-in-ness to proceedings, all excel at portraying ‘normal’ people and to my inexperienced ear, captured a variety of East Anglian accents well. It really is an ensemble piece but Kate Fleetwood is the closest to a lead character, as the woman who forms the coalescing point for the community and is responsible for setting up the London Road in Bloom competition which transformed the public face of the street, and despite a rather dodgy wig, she is superb. Clare Burt runs her a close second though with her more anguished neighbour and I also enjoyed Nicola Sloane, Nick Holder, Howard Ward…really, it is a joy to watch this entire group.

Lest this turn into a rave review, this isn’t a perfect show. It is almost always low-key rather than dramatic, a deliberate choice which sometimes works but there are times when it does become a little too languid, the repetition a little too wearing, the number of ‘you knows’ a little too frustrating no matter how realistic and true-to-life it is as the everyday revelations aren’t necessarily always that involving. Perhaps a little more pace will be brought before opening night, perhaps a number or two could be cut, but then it becomes a more sensitive issue when it is other people’s voices that are being removed rather than the playwright’s own. Still I found this to be a powerful, solid four-star show and something admirably adventurous yet deeply empathetic and incredibly stirring: the voice of everyday people never sounded so special.

To anyone unsure about booking, as with anything, but perhaps more so with this piece of theatre, approach it with an open mind and you might just be in for a great surprise and not just because of all the hanging baskets! It would be a real shame if the show’s chances were scuppered either by people’s preconceptions as to what they consider musicals to be or unwarranted controversy around misguided concerns as to the subject matter.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50 and if you’re not familiar with verbatim theatre, there’s a really fascinating piece by Blythe on how she works, plus how Cork responded to the challenges
Booking until 18th June

7 Replies to “Review: London Road, National Theatre”

  1. I saw this last night and loved it. One odd moment of pacing – there was an enormous pause after the prostitutes appeared and spoke a couple of lines before the next musical sequence started up – did this happen to you?

    I wonder if there will be a cast recording. Sounds a bit bizarre for a show like this, but I'd love to have the trial sequence in particular on CD. Fascinating compositions.

  2. Pharoah… : your rows S&T will be fine. There's only a couple of moments where they are far back underneath the band 'box', but they're always moving forward so you won't miss hardly anything (and nothing vital)

    DeNada: yes, we had the silence too, just assumed it was a technical hitch! Glad you loved it too though, I think it will be a hard sell but absolutely, totally worth it.

  3. Just back from the final preview – brilliant and unique as a piece of theatre. Flawed of course, but this is a genuinely new genre – it must get a wider showing!

  4. I found it deeply moving – wry, empathetic, and ultimately uplifting. Not at all what I'd anticipated from the evening. Great performances, wonderful storytelling. A truly unique piece of theatre and an evolution of the documentary form.

  5. As someone who lived in the town at the time of the murders it was always going to be a difficult show to watch but one that really works to convey the sense of fear, distrust and shock that enveloped the community in Dec 06.

  6. Sure that you will have compared notes with a few others on this one, but the silence part way through the second half is part of the show and definitely not a technical hitch! I must say I found it a really moving effective part of the play….I thought it was perhaps trying to evoke the eerie silence of being out alone at night in a small town city. Maybe they've changed it slightly to make it more obvious since the previews, as when I saw it the whole audience didn't even stir during this.

    Anyway, a brilliant experiment which I really enjoyed…if not quite perfect as you said. It lost my interest when it tried to capture the drama of the bigger picture and the trial/media, but was really moving when focussing on the smaller community.

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